Oscar winner Briski still focused on the project | AspenTimes.com

Oscar winner Briski still focused on the project

Stewart Oksenhorn
Zana Briski, co-director of the Academy Award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels, showing this week at the Wheeler Opera House.

Being at the recent Academy Awards was a disorienting experience for Zana Briski. Not disorienting in the way it may have been for Martin Scorsese, who once again was denied a top prize. Briski actually took home a best documentary Oscar for “Born Into Brothels,” the film she co-directed with Ross Kauffman about the children of Calcutta’s red-light district. Rather, Briski felt out of place among the film-world elite.

“Most people are at the Academy Awards to be celebrated for what they’ve done in their careers,” said Briski from her home in New York City. “I started this project as a photographer, and for the kids – and I happened to make a film. “I’m grateful for the award and the opportunity it gives me to spread the word about the project. But the work is still the work. The work was not the film.”The work Briski speaks of is Kids with Cameras, an organization she founded after her first trip to India in 1997. At the time, the London-born Briski was a photographer, interested in making a series of photographs in Calcutta’s red-light district. What attracted her eye were the children of the prostitutes who, despite their low status and wretched conditions, showed intense curiosity in Briski and her camera. Briski established Kids with Cameras with the aim of providing the kids with photographic skills, opportunities and hope. The project opened unimaginable doors for the children, who had an exhibit of their photographs in a Calcutta bookstore.Impressed by the children’s progress, Briski sought to extend the project into documentary film. Having never even held a video camera, Briski enlisted the assistance of her then-boyfriend, film editor Ross Kauffman. When the two ran low on funds, Briski contacted a friend, Aspen photo editor Janie Bennett, and arrangements were made for a 2002 exhibit of the children’s photographs at the Woody Creek Gallery. Proceeds from the show allowed Briski and Kauffman to complete “Born Into Brothels,” a profile of the children and their involvement with Kids with Cameras.

As with any Academy Award winner, the spotlight is shining on Briski, who says the immediate effect of the Oscar was “you get an awful lot of e-mails.” But while virtually every other Oscar recipient basks in that glory, for Briski it has been a mixed bag. That’s because she is thinking not in terms of her film career – she isn’t certain she’ll even pursue another movie – but about her work with the kids.On the positive side, the film is earning money and attention. The film has grossed more than $1 million, and is showing on some 100 screens in the United States. “Born Into Brothels” has its television premiere on HBO in July, and a DVD release is set for the fall. Most of the film’s earnings are earmarked for Kids with Camera.But in India, where Briski has big ambitions, the publicity has a downside. Her main focus is on building a School of Leadership and the Arts for the children of the red-light district, an idea that has upset some.”There’s been a backlash in India from local and government organizations who say I’m on their turf, and say the kids don’t need to be empowered,” said Briski, who has stuck to a promise to the children and their parents not to screen the film in India. “They say kids are born where they’re born and should stay there. So what we’re doing is radical. People are threatened by changing the social structure.”

The children have garnered more press attention than Briski. “I wish [the media] wouldn’t do that [to the children],” she said. “But it’s good for them to get positive attention because they’ve gotten so much negative attention their whole lives. They get great support, people telling them to keep getting educated, to stay positive.”The most memorable moment for Briski was being with the kids in Calcutta when she received word of the nomination. And while the Academy Awards ceremony was strange, the way people respond to the Oscar statue itself has been strangely enjoyable.”The most fun I have is walking around with the Oscar,” she said. “At the Oscars, it was such a detached experience. But when we walk around airports and people see it, they get very excited.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is stewart@aspentimes.com

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