Winner of the 2004 Academy Award for Best Documentary, Born Into Brothels (playing at the Met Cinema this week) is a devastating portrait of impoverished Calcutta children who are born into the sex trades, yet the film is also an inspiring document about human possibilities and the need to strive despite impossible odds. Filmmaker Zana Briski and her collaborator Ross Kauffman went to India in the mid-'90s to document Calcutta's prostitution trade. The more they investigated, however, the less they saw, since the secrecy of the red light district enveloped the sex trade in invisibility once the cameras began to roll. What became obvious is that vast numbers of children in the district, born to prostitutes, are facing certain futures in servitude to the sex trade. Briski begins teaching photography classes to some of the children and provides them with cameras and instructions on how to channel their perceptions into photographic images. These children capture the images of their daily lives, with their pictures and styles reflecting their personalities and interests.
Born Into Brothels focuses on seven children -- some of Briski's best and most intuitively gifted students -- whom she tries to get placed in private schools. She claims that this is probably their only means of escaping the sex trade. The obstacles are stupendous, but so is Briski's indomitability. The amount of red tape she wades through, and the beseeching, badgering, and cajoling she employs would test the patience of Job -- or maybe Mother Teresa. Her travails are a reminder of individual responsibility and the need to refashion the world into a better place despite the almost certain inevitability of failure. Once a viewer sees these children and their photographs -- they were made into a calendar one year for Amnesty International -- they are impossible to forget. Yet as we watch the film, heartbreak sets in: By now, most of these pre-adolescents have been turned out into the sex trade and have long ago abandoned their childhood.
While Born Into Brothels manages to steer pretty clear of Western angst about international poverty and doomed childhoods, the film's greatest gift is its envisioning of a world that retains some small possibility of success while also acknowledging the cruel realities that impede most progress. The only outrage lies in never having attempted to help the helpless.
(This review was originally published in The Austin Chronicle.)