Born into Brothels

Directors: Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

Topic: Art and photography transform the lives of children born to prostitutes in the red light district of Calcutta, India.

Financing: Personal credit cards plus grants from Jerome Foundation, New York State Council of the Arts and Sundance Documentary Fund (formerly Soros Fund).

Budget: Evolving. Now completing 35mm blowup; production/post-production hard costs (without salaries) estimated at $400,000.

Shooting format: Two Sony PD-100 mini-DV cameras.

Why it made the list: Filmmakers demonstrate the power of art and the potential of children even in one of the world’s cruelest environs, and capture a world previously off-limits to Westerners.

Memorable scene: Joyful response of kids at viewing their photos on display at a prestigious exhibition.

Distribution/broadcast status: ThinkFilm released theatrically in N.Y. on Dec. 8; in L.A. on Jan. 28.

On making the film: Briski set out to photograph prostitutes in Calcutta’s sexual ghetto, but became enthralled with the stigmatized children who lived there, and they with her. She bought 10 point-and-shoot cameras, and began teaching the youngsters the basics of photography, photo editing and curating. Once Kauffman got involved, he persuaded a reluctant Briski to become part of the story, documenting her struggle to open up the children’s futures by placing them in boarding schools. “The kids’ joy in this harsh place sold me on doing this film,” says Kauffman, who like Briski, is a first-time director, though Kauffman has shot and edited various docs. “Audiences fall in love with the kids, and are inspired by a single person’s story of changing lives,” notes Briski, though the pic ultimately conveys as much futility as hope.

After battling India’s bureaucracy, Briski had to persuade the mothers to let their children leave the brothels behind, with mixed results.

“Change has to come from the inside,” Briski contends.

Still, says Kauffman, “I think the kids are all better for the experience. They learned it’s OK to speak their minds and say what they feel. It’s the kids’ hope and resilience that sets the film apart.”

An exhibit of the children’s photography has raised more than $85,000 to help finance their education.


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