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...
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