‘Born into Brothels’ documents India’s lowest rung | AspenTimes.com

‘Born into Brothels’ documents India’s lowest rung

Stewart Oksenhorn

When Zana Briski first encountered the children of Calcutta’s red-light district, the sons and daughters of beaten-down prostitutes living in cramped squalor and with minimal adult care, she was moved to take action.The London-born, New York City resident turned first to what she knew best: photography. A professional photographer, Briski spent her first trip to Calcutta’s red-light district, in 1997, with her camera on her shoulder, signaling to the prostitutes that she wasn’t a doctor or social worker.”And the kids would come up behind me, look through the viewfinder, sometimes take pictures,” said Briski. “I figured it would be amazing to see what they see in their world. I see what I see; I wanted to see what they see. Particularly because they’re smaller, they have a different point of view.”Briski quickly established the Kids with Cameras program. The project equipped a few handfuls of children with cameras, film and Briski’s instruction in street photography. With Briski’s devotion behind the project, the children eventually showed their photographs in a Calcutta bookstore/gallery and, two years ago, at the Woody Creek Gallery. (Janie Bennett, a local photo editor and a member of the Kids with Cameras board, arranged the exhibit, the first showing of the children’s work outside India.)Still, Briski thought she could do more. So she turned next to something she knew nothing about: documentary filmmaking. Briski says she had never even held a video camera. “But when I got that first contact sheet” – the proof sheet of photographs the children had taken – “back, I felt there was something important to document,” she said. Fortunately, Briski knew someone – her then-boyfriend, Ross Kauffman – who knew plenty about film; Kauffman was a documentary film editor. Unfortunately, Kauffman wasn’t interested in the project. So Briski came to the United States, rounded up video equipment, returned to Calcutta and started shooting the children participating in the Kids with Cameras project.Fortunately, the children were irresistible. Briski sent her earliest video efforts back to Kauffman, who was soon on his way to India to join Briski in making a documentary.The 83-minute film, “Born into Brothels,” captures eight children, ages 10 to 14, whom most would consider the lowest of the low. The offspring of prostitutes in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the world, the children don’t go to school, get little affection and are likely headed for “the line” – the row of street prostitutes in the red-light district. The film, however, co-directed by Briski and Kauffman, is not quite the picture of despair one might assume. The children – some shy, some motormouths – are surprisingly content, articulate, likable and eager to learn photography.”That’s what kept me there so long,” said Briski. “I wanted people to fall in love with the kids the same way I did. They’re kids – they’re feisty, they’re smart. And given the chance to express themselves, they just jump at it. I gave them the chance to talk, and they stepped up.”The film is part snapshot, capturing the lives – often brutal, as when a parent delivers a foul-mouthed tirade; sometimes refreshingly normal, as on visits to the zoo and the beach – of the children. There is also a dramatic arc to “Born into Brothels,” tracing Briski’s efforts to place the children in Sabera, a Calcutta school and home for troubled youth, and following the talented photographer Avijit as he is invited to a children’s photography show in Amsterdam.”Born into Brothels” ends on a down note, as brief text statements detail each child’s status. Most of them have left Sabera, or never went, due to parents’ decisions.There is, however, a happier coda to the story. Since completion of the film, Briski has succeeded in placing six of the eight children in schools and is convinced that the other two will soon be out of the dead end of the red-light district.Moreover, the story of the children is resonating with filmgoers. “Born into Brothels” won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival (despite having been completed the day before its screening) and has won awards at festivals in Seattle, Bermuda and North Carolina. At the Cleveland International Film Festival, it took best film honors. “Born into Brothels” has its commercial opening Dec. 8 at New York City’s Film Forum and is set to open in other cities in January. The film is scheduled to show on HBO next spring.An offshoot of the film’s success is how it has spurred attention for the children’s photography. At each of the approximately 25 film festival stops, Briski arranges coinciding photo exhibits. Since the Sundance Festival, sales of the photographs have generated some $80,000, all of which goes to the kids.”The kids are empowered by that,” said Briski, who is planning to build a school in Calcutta in 2006 and is launching additional Kids with Cameras programs in Israel/Palestine, Haiti and Cairo. “They know they’re making money for their education, for their future.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com