Born Into Brothels
at the Belcourt
In The Five Obstructions, Jorgen Leth calls the red light district of Calcutta the most horrible spot on eartha noisy, smelly flesh market full of grabby children, thuggish men, and women lined up on the side of the street, many in traditional garb but all with the same dourly anxious stare. In the opening scene of the Academy Award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, a little Calcutta girl describes the awful men who come into her home and do God-knows-what behind drawn curtains. Some of them ask her, "When will you join the line?" She answers, "It won't be long."
Born Into Brothels was co-directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, the latter of whom spent a few years teaching the children of prostitutes how to use cameras. The movie combines interviews and video footage of Briski's classes with samples of the kids' still photos, which often catch parts of the labyrinthine apartments and sordid environment that a professional videographer couldn't access. In recent documentary parlance, Born Into Brothels is sort of a Chain Camera project, with some Dark Days mixed in.
While catching its subjects' natural creativity and ingrained despair, Born Into Brothels simultaneously documents Briski's efforts to navigate the regional governments as she attempts to get her charges into real boarding schools, away from the district. Nobody wants to take in the children of prostitutes and drug dealers, and Briskian Englishwoman with no training in social work, education, health care or politicsis in over her head trying to figure out which stack of forms needs a stamp from which office, and whether she's going to need to get HIV tests for the whole brood before she can proceed. Finally, she comes up with the idea to raise money by selling the class's photographs in the international art community. (Though the film never says so, it's easy to imagine that this could also be a way to assuage any guilt she might feel at having first used the impoverished as objets d'art).
Even with Briski's project of hope, Born Into Brothels has a sense of resignation that seems a little forced, as though it suited the filmmakers' purpose best to make everything look its worst. Aside from a trip to the zoo and an oceangoing field trip, the documentary doesn't give much sense of the larger scope of Calcutta life, or what might be in store for these people if they can get out of their neighborhood. Some statistics would've helped a little. It also would've been worthwhileif maybe a little party-poopingto have a few moments of aesthetic debate, questioning whether the junior photographers are really innately brilliant, or whether anyone with a camera in this community could do as well.
Still, there's something undeniably powerful about the kids' joyfulness, even amid utter squalor. So long as they're allowed to play, children can find a way to be happy in any situation. Eventually, though, the children of the red light district will have their toys taken away, be told the facts of life and put to work. If it's not too callous to say so, Born Into Brothels can be read as a metaphor for life.
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