Born Into Brothels

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When first-time filmmakers Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski ventured to Calcutta, their original plan was to examine the day-to-day lives of prostitutes working the seamy maze of back alleys inside the city's red light district. But when they discovered so many young street urchins residing in brothels there, they decided to focus on the awful plight of these unfortunate, underage social pariahs instead.

For they found that while the hardened hooker moms might have resigned themselves to their slum squalor and second-class status, their innocent, ostracized offspring still harbored dreams of rising above their inherited, lowly station. So, virtually-adopting eight waifs between the ages of 6 and 10, Mr. Kaufman shot the action as cinematographer while Ms. Briski appeared on screen as interviewer/mentor/social worker/surrogate aunt over the course of a three-year project which began in 2000.

I doubt that video journalists are supposed to get quite this emotionally-involved with their subjects, but who cares when the end result is an experience as uplifting as Born Into Brothels. Winner of the Audience Award at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival, the picture is a marvelous hybrid almost impossible to categorize.

For not only does the impassioned Briski frequently cross a line by serving as an advocate for the children, they, in turn, each pick up 35mm cameras to snap artistic stills of their bleak surroundings. Subsequently professionally-matted and framed, the photographs somehow end up in a fancy Sotheby's auction a world away. The resulting infusion of cash could be a one-way ticket out of their godforsaken hellhole for our rag-tag gang of amateur shutterbugs.

But not so fast Kimosabe, because India has a strictly-enforced caste system and money alone can't cleanse an untouchable. Plus, some parents resent having their progeny whisked away, even if it is to an upscale boarding school.

Briski's admirable persistence pays off to different degrees, though no mention is made of the prospects for the thousands not lucky enough to have her in their corner. In the end, one can't help but wonder exactly what you’ve just watched. A hard-hitting expose'? Voyeuristic slumming? A touching, true tale of triumph, against all odds? A self-aggrandizing, vanity bio-pic? Or some new type of reality show, Survivor: Calcutta? How about, all of the above.

Excellent (4 stars)
(In English and Bengali with subtitles)
Running time: 85 minutes
Distributor: ThinkFilm

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