Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born into Brothels is, in my reckoning, a quiet miracle, a feature-length documentary that follows and transforms the lives of seven children growing up in the squalid red light district of Sonagchi, Calcutta. Carefully avoiding bathos and melodrama, Briski and Kauffman pull us deeply into the everyday existence of these kids – the verbal abuse and beatings, the drug addiction and atrocities,the desperation and impoverishment, the rage and apathy that perpetuate their misery.
And, strangely enough, interwoven throughout are the childish games, silent ordinary beauty, and bubbling enthusiasm they share with other children. Corny as it sounds (and Born into Brothels is anything but corny), one of the film’s most powerful revelations is that for all their earthy wisdom, these kids retain their youthful energy despite harrowing circumstances. They toil and suffer; steadfast and philosophical when they must be, inured to their surroundings to a large degree (how else would they subsist?), but when given the chance, they revel in their capacity to love the world.
One of the film’s most haunting images, a photograph of one of the girls posed provocatively in front of a car, is so unnerving, because, of course, it functions as a ghost of what the future may hold. We’ve all seen little girls playing dress-up, but even in comparison to the creepy creepy shots we’ve seen from infant beauty pageants, this picture is disturbing, although not in a garish, lurid way. Zana Briski is far too professional and respectful for that.
The documentary is predicated upon the loving relationship between Briski and her seven photographer proteges: Avigit, Gour, Puja, Shanti, Kochi, Suchitra, and Manik. In a moment of serendipitous inspiration, Briski decides to invite the children to a photography class, handing out cameras to each and training them. She realises the kids will have access she cannot begin to tap, and, being young, have a certain amount of chutzpah that enables them to just walk up and photograph someone, not caring if it angers or offends them.
Like so many aspects of the film, their nerve is a double-edged sword, facilitated by their low tier in the notorious caste system. We are horrified by so many details of their environment, but they persevere, cameras at the ready. And how astonishing they are! Even if we take into account that some photos were probably sifted out, the radiance and audacity and clear-eyed authenticity of the shots they take are mind-boggling. The film is jammed with distinctive, poignant imagery – a boy flying a kite from the roof of a tenement, a girl gazing quietly out the window of a bus, the children egging on the driver in a spontaneous taxi race, grown men ogling a young girl.
It’s very touching that a professional photographer would move to India for two years and be willing to share her task, in the process opening up the world for her subjects. Not only do thy love what they’re doing but they take it very seriously, although it’s hard not to get a kick when she chides one of the boys – they all call her “Auntie Zana” – for wasting two rolls of film by shooting at night without a flash. He makes one of those faces only a youngster can and says something like, “I was so absolutely confused.” These moments of opulent humanity are a grace.
Despite differing levels of resignation, the children know they must get an education and away from their homes if they are to escape a demeaning future. One of the older girls is already getting nagged by her aunt to “join the line,” an image all too easily attached to street-walkers in America, and probably everywhere else. Briski makes it her mission to get them into boarding schools, fighting the convoluted documentation system, ignorance, intolerance, and the blasé attitude of parents, relatives, teachers, clerks, government officials, and nuns(!?). You’d think the Brides of Christ capable of more altruism.
One of Briski’s great strengths was her willingness (if I’m reading it right) to improvise and follow the path on which this project must have lead her. Eventually the photographs they took became part of an exhibition in which the children participated,traveling to New York and earning money to facilitate their own emancipation. It’s a privilege to witness the unfolding of this journey and watch them savoring the excitement and engaging vistas as only children can. And Born into Brothels isn’t one of those pitches for children as cosmic shamans in small. We understand the devastation of their predicament but Briski doesn’t milk it. She embraces her subjects with sober, practical optimism, the kind that heals even if it doesn’t necessarily fix everything.