Friday, September 23, 2005

Born into Brothels

Is it me, or are documentaries getting better and better? While many people still avoid them, I’ve become increasingly attracted to docs as a medium of exploration into corners of life, the world and society that I might never otherwise encounter. Quicker and more entertaining than a book but much more in-depth and artistic than the news, I inevitably come away from a good documentary full of wonder, enlightenment, sensitivity and respect.

Just out on DVD, Born into Brothels­ is just such a powerful documentary—a penetrating look the children of prostitutes and drug addicts in the squalid red light district of today’s Calcutta. Winner of the Best Feature Documentary Academy Award, it debuted at Sundance and was an audience favorite.

This is the story of photojournalist and first-time director Zana Briski, who went to India to document the life of Calcutta’s prostitutes. Through her experiences Briski became deeply involved in the lives of the children who live in the brothels. Her group consists mostly of bright-eyed, enthusiastic ten to twelve-year-olds who, while deeply affected by their environments, have not yet succumbed to depravity of their surrounding culture. Briski gives nine young boys and girls cameras and teaches them photography with almost breathtaking results. The children document their lives through film with extraordinary artistic insight and unfettered creativity. Some of their work is so good it ends up being displayed in galleries around the world, receiving international coverage. (To see some of the work, go to

Briski makes dogged efforts to rescue these children from their near-inevitable fate of crime, addiction and “joining the line” for the young girls. And a substantial amount of the movie is her battle with the bureaucracy to get these nine children into boarding schools, where they could receive a decent education and avoid following in the footsteps of their parents. And while a film-school critic might question some of the editorial decisions, I thought the movie kept a steady pace, aided nicely by a vibrant musical score.

But it is the children that captivate our attention with an innocence and exuberance that belies lifetime experiences that are painfully hard and desperate. These kids will move you, and touch your life with their smiles and laughs, their love and caring, and their fears and hopes.

While obviously there is some mature subject matter and not suitable for all ages, watching Born into Brothels with your children will be a powerful and moving experience, one that will open your eyes to the heartbreaking conditions these children face, and the extraordinary resilience of humanity in the face of these long odds.


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