Aims, Shoots & Leaves?
Filmmakers and photographers adore "Born Into Brothels," and no wonder. This Oscar-nominated documentary about eight children in the red light district of Calcutta brandishes the camera the way Christian missionaries used to brandish the Bible – as the physical manifestation of salvation. The question, though, is: Who is saved? To judge by the film alone, I would say the filmmakers, not the children.
When British photojournalist Zana Briski first entered these filthy, rat-infested back alleys, her aim was to film the prostitutes ("sex workers," in her enlightened parlance). But her subjects, evidently not sharing this enlightened view of their profession, proved uncooperative. So Briski and her cinematographer, Ross Kauffman, turned their viewfinders toward the children.
Which was understandable, given the beauty and vivacity of these amazing kids. Between 10 and 12 years old, they revive the old cliche about brilliant flowers pushing up through a dungheap. Yet they are also social outcasts, and unless their lives change drastically, they will very soon become prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, and addicts – just like their elders.
Briski doesn't just film the kids. She gives them cameras and teaches them the fundamentals of photography. Some are more gifted than others: the clear winner is a pugnacious little fellow named Avijit, already an accomplished watercolorist. But each child manages to produce a couple of exceptional photographs, and Briski works hard to have the collection exhibited in a Calcutta bookstore.
But this is where the film stumbles. As the little ones go from seeing their first contact print to being driven to the exhibition in a nice section of town, they become terribly excited - and the gap between their dreams and their reality becomes achingly wide. To her credit, Briski understands this, and struggles to help. But her efforts are excruciating to watch, because they are all predicated on uprooting these tender blossoms from the only world they know.
After a long search, Briski manages to locate two boarding schools in Calcutta that will accept pupils from such a background. It’s not easy to enroll them, and between obtuse bureaucrats and impossible demands for documents, she almost gives up. But finally, assiduously dotting every "I" and crossing every "T," she gets everything arranged.
Or almost everything. Here's the rub, because it is then, only then, that Briski talks to the parents. Or rather exhorts them, with comments like: "Don’t you want Puja to have a better life?" and "Of course you’ll be able to see him...once a month." Maybe it’s a distortion of the film, but Briski seems painfully oblivious to the fact that these downtrodden adults not only love their kids but also depend on them.
Most of the parents give their consent - but grudgingly. And as the film ends, we learn that most of the children did not stay in school. Either their parents took them out or they left of their own accord (for emotional reasons not hard to imagine). Ironically, the only child who sees all this coming is Avijit, and he is also the only one who truly escapes. Unlike the others, he has a grandmother who has long supported his painting and is willing to loosen her grip.
I gather from various websites that Briski's efforts did not cease with the completion of "Born Into Brothels." Far from it. She raises money for them through the sale of their photos (some through Sotheby’s), and she presides over an organization, Kids with Cameras, that seeks to bring the joys and opportunities of photography to other impoverished children around the world. If she wins the Oscar, these efforts will receive a gratifying boost.
But as Briski and others spread the gospel of the camera, I hope they bear in mind the lesson this film inadvertently teaches: Talk to the parents first, and put yourself in their shoes. If you lived in a dungheap, would you want to lose your only flower?