Saturday, October 08, 2005

Born Into Brothels

Friday night was replete with UofC style entertainment. First up Happy Hour, this week the $1 pizza and beer deal was discounted further to "free" to celebrate the start of quarter, then followed by the Doc Films showing (usually $4, but cheaper since we bought quarter passes). I figure I need to get my fill of student discounts for the next few months until they kick me out and I have to pay the grown-up price for everything.

The film we saw was "Born Into Brothels", this last year's Oscar winner for Best Documentary. It is an unusual film in that it righteously tramples down the barrier of objectivity that so often exists between documentarians and their subjects. Zana Briski (along with Ross Kaufmann) has made a vivid and touching chronicle of her efforts to teach photography to a group of children living in Calcutta's red-light district -- go see it if you can.

She hands them each a camera, teaches them how to use it and sends them off to document their world. Like their mothers before them, the girls in her class are all in danger of slipping into prostitution, and the boys are not any safer for their gender. And so the filmmaker also throws herself into the children's lives, tromping the streets of Calcutta to find a boarding school that will take the children, making sure their papers and medical tests are in order, and in one case, securing a passport so one student can attend a youth photography summit in Europe.

The gift of the cameras seems so innovative in that it not only gives the children something to be proud of and to occupy their talents, it also gives them a voice and a method for analyzing and understanding the world they live in and each other. Their perceptiveness is at times heartbreaking, and several scenes have stuck with me. One girl offers bite-size comments on the personality of the other children while the film superposes the portraits they have taken of each other. Another girl pauses to consider whether she will "join the lines" when she is a bit older. A boy notes that he tries to love his father "a little bit" even though he is a drug-addict that nobody cares about. When talking about the photos, about what they like and why, all of them could easily hold their own in a college art class. The children seem to blossom in the camera's gaze, which is a tribute to the trust the filmmakers have earned with their subjects. By contrast, there are a few scenes showing the children's interactions with other grown-ups and the looks of stone-walling and rebelliousness that cross their faces are telling.

One problem I had is Briski's relationship to the parents. More often than not, the parents are shown as obstacles to the children "getting out." There is not a lot of sympathy for the parents who are about to lose their children to a boarding school in a different part of town. The film doesn't offer a systematic analysis of prostitution or child poverty in India, and so while I completely related to Briski's very human reaction of wanting to do something for the children she loved, part of me wondered if taking the children and putting them in boarding school was preferable to doing something to help the community itself thrive.

But that is just a minor (and perhaps unfair) quibble. In his review of the film, A. O. Scott compares the film to the books of Jonathan Kozol. Both revolve around an insistence on the full humanity of those people who are marginal in our societies. For evidence of this you can view a few of the children's photos here.

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