Film-Forward Review: [BORN INTO BROTHELS]

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Filmmaker Zana Briski (R) & friend
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Directed, Produced & Director of Photography by: Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman.
Director of Photography: .
Edited by: Nancy Baker & Ross Kaufman.
Music by: John McDowell.
Released by: THINKFilm, in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films.
Language: English & Bengali with English subtitles.
Country of Origin: USA. 85 min. Not Rated.

Filmmaker Zana Briski interacts with her subjects, the children of prostitutes living in Calcutta's infamous red light district, while expressing her opinions and actively trying to change her subjects' lives. The result of such a personal view is mostly positive, with the few flaws outranked by a beautifully poignant and humane look at these children, who are suffering economic hardships and marked for the same profession as their mothers and grandmothers.

Photojournalist Briski spent years on and off living in the district, teaching the children and the prostitutes photography. The camera follows the teacher and her pupils as they take pictures and talk about the lives. It also captures Briski's desperate but determined quest to get the children into a boarding school - an extremely difficult task, as she faces prejudice from educational authorities, Indian bureaucracy, and, in some cases, reluctance from the children's families.

It is impossible not to sympathize and understand Briski's involvement, especially since the children's distinct personalities shine through. In one very funny scene, a brother and sister complain about each other. Another boy is making progress in photography, and opportunity seems just around the corner when his mother dies. Grief is expressed in his withdrawal, rebellion, and rejection of the very talent that can save him.

Briski fills the screen with the children's photographs, some of which tell more about their lives than words could. Many of the photos are also very good. Briski discovers real talent beyond mere enthusiasm. One of the children was invited by the World Press Photo Foundation to be part of their children's jury, and another child's photo was chosen for the cover of Amnesty International's 2003 calendar.

Briski interlays scenes of the children with interviews with their families and of the district itself. This gives context, though it also constitutes the weakest part of the film: the grown-ups, especially the mothers, remain too elusive to be real, and what is known about them is mostly from what is mentioned by Briski or the children. There are hints at bigger stories, but they are not developed, so the alleged cruelty sometimes feels - except for one particular case - manipulative and simplified. The film's power, though, is diminished only very slightly. Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman have made a film in which children are never idealized or overestimated, but instead, real and three-dimensional.

Roxana M. Ramirez, Peruvian lawyer and journalist, formerly a member of the Peruvian Human Rights and Public Service Ombudsman
December 8, 2004



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