With their unusual and affecting documentary Born Into Brothels, filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski make no attempt at objectivity. They record not only the strivings of nine children growing up in Calcutta's red-light district, but also Kauffman and "Zana Auntie"'s efforts to improve the lives of those children through education and, potentially, escape from their mostly unhealthy surroundings. As such, Born Into Brothels is an account of a random act of kindness more than it is an exposé of the red-light district. Above all, Kauffman and Briski illuminate the potential and promise inherent in any child.
Perhaps disingenuously, Briski claims not to know why she persists in her efforts with the children and assures us she's not a trained educator. But there she sits, doling out basics of photography to captivated children of prostitutes. The children appear to be quick studies: their photographs evolve beyond the point-and-shoot school to evince an awareness of subject and composition. Thanks to Briski's tenacity, eleven-year-old Avijit captures the attention of the World Press Photo Foundation. "I want to put across the behavior of man," he says.
For every exhibition or trip to the beach "Zana Auntie" arranges for her adopted nieces and nephews, there's a troubling obstacle. The children are, in most cases, the youngest of three generations living in the squalid brothels. All have labor responsibilities, ranging from round-the-clock cleaning and cooking to enforcing the payment of johns.
The girls all face the spectre of inevitably stepping "into the line" and living the sad lives of their mothers. One girl puts it plainly: "One has to accept life being sad and painful." A child's mother is murdered by a pimp; all are subject to verbal or physical abuse. Kauffman and Briski defiantly focus on the children's artistic talent, but they inject enough shots of toiling children and prostitutes' profane screaming matches to establish the odds against these kids.
Briski faces her own obstacles when she determines to place these children of criminals into schools. She finds no generosity in the adult world ("Nobody here understands anything but money," laments one child). Bureaucracy vexes Briski, as does the moment when she realizes she has no idea whether the children are HIV-positive or not: a sticking point for the schools.
Through it all, the children are learning to see rays of light in their once-hopeless existence. Even though despair mingles with hope in equal measure by film's end, Kauffman and Briski make a good case that it's better to have photographed and lost than never to have photographed at all.
Avijit sizes up a photograph from another part of the world as "a good picture. We get a good sense of how these people live. And though there is sadness in it and though it's hard to face, we must look at it because it is truth." His wise-beyond-his-years comment sums up Kauffman and Briski's heart-rending film.