May 9, 2005 -- “Born Into Brothels” is a documentary about a Western photojournalist's relationship with some children living in a Calcutta brothel. It demonstrates, among other things, some major differences between North American and European countries and the world's largest democracy.
Photojournalist Zana Briski, doing a story on prostitutes in Calcutta, became friends with their children, who were fascinated by her camera. She taught them how to use cameras, and then gave them cameras to use. This led to a film about the children and the remarkable images they captured. Some of the images are remarkable, indeed. Others are fuzzy or out of focus. If the film was just the images, it would not be much of a story. Briski decided to try to help these children escape their fate of poverty and abuse. That is the part of the film that becomes a compelling story.
Briski tries to obtain a passport for an artistically gifted boy so he can attend a photographic conference in Europe. She runs headlong into a despiriting bureacracy, people thumping away on ancient, worn-out typewriters in front of giant stacks of paperwork. The stacks of yellowing paper look like they have been sitting there moldering away since the days when India was a British colony. She tries to get several of the kids enrolled in a bording school, so they can have a chance at a real life, maybe even higher education and a professional career. The trouble is, most schools will not take these students because they are the children of prostitutes. She also runs into resistance from parents, relatives and guardians. The whole project becomes increasingly difficult.
The children themselves are mostly upbeat and often happy. At the same time, they have an adult-like realization that their lives are likely to be short, and grim. The film also gives us a look at the lives of prostitutes in Calcutta. Needless to say, their lives are not like those of prostitutes depicted in Hollywood movies (like “Pretty Woman” for instance). They are women who are working hard just to stay alive, and some of them don't make it. The worst part of it is that their children are punished for their sins. The greatest punishment of all is that the children are slowly pulled into a life of prostitution and crime themselves, part of an endless cycle. Some prostitutes want a better life for their children. Others, by their actions or inactions, doom their children to a life of prostitution, drugs and crime. Society as a whole simply ignores them.
The film depicts the squallor and incredibly crowded conditions in which all of these people live. The rooms are crowded. There is garbage on the floor. The streets are crowded. Prostitutes stand “in line” waiting for customers. There is a lot of conflict in the red light district and we hear people cursing each other, using a lot of profanity. This is one of the main reasons for the film's “R” rating. Prostitution is illegal in India, but enforcemet of the law seems lax.
Perhaps the main reason for the plight of the people in the film is that India is such an overpopulated place. Life has become cheap, especially for society's have-nots. There are also the twin problems of a widening gap between the richest and poorest, combined with India's caste system. This is a deadly combination for some of those in Calcutta's red light district. The photos taken by the children capture this chaotic, colorful street scene. The film itself appears to have been made largely with video cameras. Far from a polished film, the image quality is often poor, sometimes because of poor lighting conditions. The film score of Indian music is effective in setting the film's mood. This film won the 2004 Academy Award for best documentary. This film rates a B.
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