Th!nkFilm // 2003 // 85 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Jonathan Weiss (Retired) // January 9th, 2006
Cameras don't just take pictures. Sometimes they also give hope.
Children of whores should not have hope. Not in Calcutta. Not anywhere. They should know their lot in life, and they should be resigned to it. If you're a girl, you're destined to follow your mother, sister, aunt, and probably even your grandmother to the street, where you'll line up with all the other whores waiting to scrape together a measly living. If you're a boy, you know that there's a good chance you might be sold as a servant to a complete stranger for a couple of rupees if you don't find a way to earn your keep. And until then, your day to day reality is living in a rundown, filthy tenement that doubles as your grandmother's, your mother's, your aunt's, and your sister's place of business. Nothing is hidden from your eyes or your ears, and you know full well that this is all there is, and you shouldn't expect any more. And yet Born Into Brothels proves that with the right opportunity and the proper encouragement and attention, these same children of squalor and hopelessness can reveal such untapped talent, such depth of potential and such keen intelligence that you can't help but wonder...what if?
In 1997, Zana Briski, a documentary photographer, came to India to shoot images of the prostitutes who inhabit Calcutta's red light district. What she soon realized, however, was that integrating herself into this closed society was not going to be easy. What did come easy was her interaction with the children of prostitutes who could not help but be drawn towards this Caucasian woman and her camera. They inundated her with questions. They posed for pictures. And finally they wanted to try and take pictures themselves. Zana bought a whole bunch of simple automatic film cameras and passed them on to these enthusiastic kids. They then started shooting pictures of everything and everyone in their lives and then brought the cameras back to "Aunty" (which is what they called Zana) to be developed. The rest as they say, is history.
Born into Brothels won the Oscar for Best Documentary at the 77th Academy Awards (not to mention a host of other awards). But don't let that sway you. This is one powerful documentary that will leave an indelible impression on you long after the screen goes dark. If you are not left with the undeniable impression that one person can make a difference in the lives of others then you need to sit back and press play one more time.
Over the course of this documentary we really get to know and care about these kids (the shy one; the funny one; the troubled one; etc.) The film takes turns spotlighting each kid and a selection of their photographs along with a voyeuristic peek into their (shocking) every day lives. We see how important Zana Briski is to them and in turn how important they are to her and through it all we are witness to the power of opportunity and of talent and above all, hope.
After seeing the potential of their initial efforts with the cameras she gave them, Zana sets up a make shift photography school where she begins teaching these kids everything from layout and composition to the fundamentals of what makes a good photo. And as they develop (their talent as well as their images) she also begins to introduce their work to influential people who champion their cause by putting their photos on display in America -- with all money earned going towards the kids and their education.
Which brings up a whole other realm where "Aunty" makes a huge difference in the lives of these kids. She wants them to go to a private school -- somewhere out of reach of the red light district and what awaits them there, but with the caste system being what it is in India, only certain schools are available to children of prostitutes. To even apply, she needs to have the right paperwork, which is next to impossible to obtain. A visit to the local registry shows a filing system that consists of stacks of paper piled high to the ceiling. It may be weeks or months before they even find the right paper. Though still determined to get what she needs, it's hard not to be touched by Zana, close to tears, sitting in a taxi on her way back to the red light district after wasting a full day.
Meanwhile she continues fueling the children's enthusiasm by organizing photography outings to places they would never have normally been able to experience. You can see the excitement on their faces; it's palatable -- breaking free of the prison of their lives if only for an afternoon. You can almost see them thinking, "is this what normal kids do?"
Watching them experience a zoo for the first time is both joyous and heartbreaking. The kids are so exuberant, snapping pictures left right and centre. The animals, on the other hand, look so sickly and pitiful and trapped within their too-small cages. One child comments that people feed the elephants plastic bags. and as you shake your head. you wonder how a country that can worship one animal can treat others so poorly.
But then, compared to the daily reality of these kids' lives, the zoo animals might not be so badly off. Most don't have functioning fathers -- either long gone or addicted to hash or alcohol. Beatings are common. Obscenities beyond your wildest dreams (if the translations are to be believed) are regularly directed at them for bringing home too little money or for being lazy or worthless.
One of the kids -- a true art prodigy -- gets invited to go to Amsterdam as part of a program for gifted children where he will be exposed to different people and art from around the world. And then he learns that his birth mother was brutally murdered -- set on fire -- and that the authorities don't care enough to even pretend to start an investigation.
On the very cusp of escaping his surrounding he is instantly thrust back into grim reality. He stops taking photos. He doesn't want to go to Amsterdam. He doesn't want to do much of anything. He stops caring. But Aunty doesn't.
Throughout it all Aunty cares. And we care too. These kids do matter. They are important. And they have so much to offer outside of what they have been taught to believe.
At first I didn't even want to remark on the video, audio and extras. Not because they weren't good but because after watching the main feature, the video could have been grainy, the sound patchy and the extras slim and I would have still been blown away. However, you really should know that the video is bright, vibrant and clean and the audio is just fine (though having 5.1 doesn't make a whole lot of difference in this case). And as far as the extras go, well, they didn't skimp -- what with two commentaries. One is feature length by Zana and her partner Ross Kauffman; a second involves the kids talking over selected scenes.
There is also an Academy Award acceptance speech, galleries, deleted scenes, and a sit-down interview with Charlie Rose (a very popular DVD extra if there ever was one). But the one extra that most people won't be able to resist is the featurette, "Reconnecting: An update of the Kids, 3 years later" that can be summed up in one word: Uplifting.
These kids are not and have never been guilty of anything -- except of being born.
Review content copyright © 2006 Jonathan Weiss; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 85 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Director's Commentary
* Kids Video Commentary
* Reconnecting: An update of the Kids, 3 years later
* Deleted scenes
* Academy Awards Acceptance Speech
* Charlie Rose Interview with Ross and Zana (excerpts)
* Photo gallery / Publicity Stills
* Kids With Cameras Page
* Theatrical Trailer
* Kids with Cameras