Web Edition

lead stories
other news



chess forum
town talk


press releases


last week's issue

real estate
classified ads


For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.

photo caption:
HELP FROM A PROFESSIONAL: Photographer Zana Briski (right) gives some photography pointers to a child of a prostitute (left). Briski, and her associate Ross Kauffman (not pictured), undertook to help eight children achieve their dreams of escaping their bleak life of poverty in the slums of Calcutta.end caption.

Born into Brothels: Calcutta Pariahs Get New Lease on Life in Oscar-Winning Documentary

Review by Kam Williams

When British photographer Zana Briski went to Calcutta, her original plan was to document the day-to-day lives of prostitutes working the maze of back alleys scattered around the city's red light district. But she altered her plans after she was met the unfortunate street urchins residing in the whorehouses.

Although most of the hookers had lost hope and resigned themselves to their lower caste status, Briski was surprised to discover that the women's offspring dreamt of one day escaping the squalor of the slums and rising above their inherited station in life. So, she summoned Ross Kauffman to India to videotape the heartbreaking plight of these young pariahs.

I doubt that either of the first-time filmmakers expected to get so close to their subjects that they would abandon the impersonal role normally assumed by journalists and become emotionally involved as surrogate parents in an attempt to rescue the children from their desperate straits. The result of their work was not only the satisfaction of knowing that they had made a difference in these children's lives, but also professional recognition. Their inspirational movie has won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Born Into Brothels is difficult to categorize. Briski serves primarily as cinematographer and Kauffman works in front of the camera as interviewer, mentor, and social worker. The film focuses on eight waifs between the ages of 6 and 10 whom the couple have adopted over the course of a three-year project which began in 2000.

Shy, sweet Kochi is interested in learning about computers and how to speak English. Manik, who lives in a small room with his older sister, Shanti, loves flying kites. Tapasi wants to be a teacher when she grows up. Puja is a tomboy with pet parrots. Her best friend, Gour is a sensitive boy who is curious about college. Suchitra is a girl who escapes all the insanity on a rooftop, while Avijit is an amateur artist showing much promise.

They're ordinary kids who are poverty stricken and living in slums teeming with prostitutes, vermin, disease, narcotics, alcohol, and drug addicts. Since most can't afford to attend school, their future looks as bleak as their mothers'. Recognizing the children's potential, Briski becomes their tireless, outspoken advocate, raising money for their education.

She equips each of her charges with cameras to photograph their bleak surroundings. Because of their natural curiosity, and their access to the streets, brothels, and drug dens, the pictures yield an alternately enchanting and unsettling child's eye view of Calcutta's lowest level of life.

Professionally-matted and framed, the photographs are sent to be auctioned in Sothebys. One might think that the resulting infusion of cash would be a one-way ticket out of their godforsaken hellhole for the children.

However, India has a strict caste system, and money alone cannot cleanse an untouchable. The country has created a maze of bureaucratic red tape requiring birth certificates, HIV tests and so forth before the children can enroll in an upscale boarding school. Also, some of the mothers resent having their children taken away, even if it is to an upscale boarding school.

Briski's admirable persistence pays off, although no mention is made of the prospects for the thousands of children not lucky enough to have her in their corner. Despite all of Born into Brothels earnestness, in the end, you can't help but wonder exactly what it was you've just seen. A hard-hitting exposé? Voyeuristic slumming? A true tale of triumph, against all odds? A self-aggrandizing, vanity biopic? Some new type of reality film?

Perhaps all of the above.

Excellent (4 stars). Unrated. In English and Bengali with subtitles. Running time: 85 minutes. Distributor: ThinkFilm.

end of review.

For more movie summaries, see Kam's Kapsules.


Website Design by Kiyomi Camp