Zana Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, was recording the life of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red light district when she came up with the idea of starting a photography class for a group of their children, something that would hopefully lead to them recording their lives from their point of view. The children, aged 10 to 14, proved talented, and one boy in particular was so consistently adept that he was chosen to represent the children at an exhibition at the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam.
The crux of Born Into Brothels, which Briski co-directed with Ross Kaufman, revolves around her efforts to save a few of these children from their fates, to try to get them into schools and away from their poverty-stricken home lives. As the film progresses, we get to know the different kids, most of whom have a much sunnier disposition than you’d expect, and after a while we develop an emotional investment in whether or not they’re going to manage to escape.
Brothels won this year’s Academy Award for best feature-length documentary and one wonders if it would have been so honored if it had presented a fuller picture of the children’s situation. The sordid reality of the prostitutes’ profession, the brutal customers and absent fathers of the children and the fact that some of the girls will be “turned out” before they’re 15 — these things are alluded to, but remain in the background in a film that’s ultimately more charmingly bittersweet than truly disturbing. Brothels is made bearable by its emphasis on Briski’s humanitarianism, which is genuine but which also obscures the darker issues here. And yet, despite one’s qualms about the slant of the film, it would take a heart of stone not to respond to these precocious and in some cases doomed children.
In English and Bengali with English subtitles. Showing at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit; 313-833-3237), at 7 and 9:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, March 11 and 12, and at 4 p.m. on Sunday, March 13.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.