Intervention in the lives of India's most deprived class of kids is the focus of "Born Into Brothels," an engaging docu about a British photographer who endeavors to help the children of Calcutta prostitutes by teaching them how to use a camera. Conventional pic's introduction of hope into nearly hopeless lives give it strong human interest value.

Decisive intervention in the lives of India’s most deprived class of kids is the focus of “Born Into Brothels,” an engaging docu about a British photographer who endeavors to help the children of Calcutta prostitutes by teaching them how to use a camera. Even if the film itself is relatively conventional, its exposure of a squalid city’s most benighted neighborhood and its introduction of hope into nearly hopeless lives give it strong human interest value. Audience Award at Sundance suggests some theatrical potential for, and hefty international interest in, this HBO/Cinemax production prior to healthy cable and homevid careers.

Zana Briski is a London-born, Gotham-based photojournalist who first went to India in 1995, and three years later began living with prostitutes in order to photograph them, in the notorious Sonagachi district, a staggeringly cramped series of pedestrian alleys that fully supports one inhabitant’s comment that, “No one lives as filthily as we do.”

Along with what look to be mostly catty, vulgar women and useless, layabout men, the area is inhabited by lots of kids, the generally fatherless sprigs of little-educated women who fully expect their daughters to join (or replace) them “onto the line” in their early teens. Appalled by the children’s virtually preordained dismal destinies, Briski sought to help by giving the kids some point-and-shoot cameras and basic instruction in the art of photography.

Briski recruited vet New York docu editor Ross Kauffman to help her record the process, and the observed results confirm her enthusiastic assessment of some of the kids’ talents. Numerous photos show a real eye, which in fact led to multiple international shows of the work in New York and Amsterdam, where one of the boys gets to go.

But much more at the heart of the film is the way this immersion in learning and self-discovery energizes the kids and gets them out of their otherwise mundane existences. Briski takes them on field trips to the zoo and to the seashore, where they see a beach for the first time in their lives. They even get their 15 minutes of fame when they are interviewed by local TV outlets at an exhibition of their work held at the Oxford Bookstore in Calcutta.

Despite their blighted surroundings, the kids are mostly bright and enthusiastic, at least onscreen, and pic develops a deep rooting interest in Briski’s subsequent effort to physically uproot them from their environment and replant them in more fertile ground in the form of private boarding schools.

Finding respectable institutions that will take these most scorned of society’s children is hard enough, and then there is India’s monumental bureaucracy to deal with: Briski is shown standing in seemingly endless lines, and returning to chaotic government agencies again and again, in pursuit of the required birth certificates, ration cards, HIV certificates and the like, just to get the kids passports and papers.

A good number of the children manage to find places at schools, but the biggest barrier proves to be the kids’ mothers or guardians, some of whom are heartbreakingly opposed to improving their charges’ lots in life. Feeling at fadeout is melancholy for those left behind, but finally upbeat for the few that, at least at this stage, managed to squeak through.

Although some may chafe at the image of the concerned Westerner playing God in the lives of unfortunate Third World moppets, few could deny that these are kids desperately in need of a helping hand, even if the assistance extended is a drop in the bucket compared with the overall problem of poverty and lack of opportunity and education. It’s the story of a woman urgently motivated to help on a person-to-person level, with no grander political agenda, and as such, the film generates genuine emotion.

Camera stays close to its subjects and gets into the bowels of the community, where some unsavory doings are occasionally glimpsed. Tech quality is OK.

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

Production

A Red Light Films presentation in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Prods. Produced by Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski. Executive producer, Geralyn White Dreyfous. Co-executive producer, Pamela Tanner Boll. Directed by Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski.

Crew

Camera (color, HD), Kauffman, Briski; editors, Nancy Baker, Kauffman; music, John McDowell; sound, Dave Baruch; associate producer, Ellen Peck. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (competing), Jan. 23. 2004. Running time: 85 MIN.
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