Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Zana Briski and the children of Sonagachi, Kolkata
Director: Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski
Audio: English & Bengali 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 4:3 full-frame
Studio: THINKFilm
Features: Commentaries, deleted scenes, Charlie Rose interview, re-union featurette, production stills, trailers, booklet
Length: 83 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2005

"I keep thinking if I could go some place else and get education, I wonder what I could become."

Film ****

Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) is an immensely crowded urban agglomeration, home to more than 13 million Indian people.  As the capital of West Bengal and the commercial and financial hub of eastern India, Kolkata is a multicultural, cosmopolitan city with a rapidly-growing private sector of modernization.  The city proper is home to over 4 million civilians, affluent and poor alike.  However, as with any thriving metropolis, Kolkata possesses its share of poor neighborhoods, with pockets of slums and impoverished communities accounting for over a quarter of the city's population.

One such dilapidated community is Sonagachi, a notorious red light district whose numerous brothels cater to the sexual cravings of all who would care to sample the available human merchandise.  Even within this less-than-ideal setting, families are born and raised.  As the nights in Sonagachi are dominated by the presence of prostitutes, so the day hours will find children playing in the streets, discovering charm and beauty even within the bleak and dreary environs which surround them.

Born into Brothels is an account by New York-based photographer Zana Briski of the lives of such children.  With her camera, Briski captured the children of Sonagachi at play over a period of several years, even utilizing photographs taken by the children themselves.  Born into Brothels compiles all these images together into a composite depiction of the true nature of existence within one of Kolkata's poorest districts.  As a documentary about a struggling but enduring world that exists under polite society's notice, Born into Brothels is an utterly fascinating work.

The documentary opens with a cinematic montage of images showing the prostitutes, the squalor of the neighborhoods, the congestion and filth of the streets, and even glimpses of anonymous families trying to eke out a living somehow.  Among these images are pictures of the children who will be the principal subjects of this documentary.  Briski herself appears in Born into Brothels, too, but mostly as a guiding mentor or a narrator for the film.

Originally, Briski's concept for the film had been quite different.  Her intent had been to capture the desolation of the prostitutes.  Armed with a video camera for the first time in her photography career, she stayed with a brothel family to develop a better understanding of life in Sonagachi.  While Briski quickly learned to appreciate the inherent danger of photographing people in this red light district, she soon found herself surrounded by the children of the brothels.  Among them was Kochi, daughter of the family with whom Zana Briski was staying.  The children's curiosity at Briski's strange devices, especially the camera, encouraged her to begin teaching them about photography.  She soon set up a special class to teach the children about film composition and technique but more importantly to encourage the children to find their own creative voice as a more productive sublimation of their energies.

Thus was Born into Brothels created.  The documentary offers candid interviews with the children, including a look into their private and not always pleasant (and sometimes rather tragic) family lives.  Realistically, most young girls of red light districts can only look forward to a future in which they too will "join the line" as prostitutes.  Briski hoped that by her efforts she could inspire the children to envision a better future for themselves beyond the hopelessness of the brothels.

Born into Brothels follows nine such children.  There is shy but aspiring and resourceful Kochi, Briski's first student.  There is temperamental Shanti with her easy-going brother Manik.  Tapasi is the responsible girl, while fun and feisty Puja is the most out-going of the girls.  Among them, Suchitra soon proves to be the best photographer.  As for the boys, sensitive and caring Gour shows promising signs as a future activist, while Avijit is the most creative and talented of the children (the ninth child, Mamoni, is not directly identified but she does appear in the film).

The documentary tracks the children's increasing comfort and skill with the camera, and samples of their photographs are regularly displayed.  Briski constantly encourages the children to develop their new skills, even arranging for exhibitions of their work in New York, including an auction at Sotheby's, which the children are able to watch via the internet.  Closer to home, a special exhibition of the children's photographs is displayed at the Oxford gallery, too.

To further boost the children's morale and self-esteem, Briski takes them on occasional outings beyond the confines of Sonagachi.  They go on a trip to the zoo, a somewhat bittersweet experience as the children see something of themselves in the caged animals.  More joyous is a trip to Digha beach, the children's first experience with surf and sand.

Recognizing that only a proper education will help the children ultimately to surmount their brothel backgrounds, Briski even struggles against tremendous societal resistance to enroll the children into good boarding schools.  Despite hassles with the ration boards, compulsory HIV testing, not to mention difficulties with the flawed family history (children of criminals generally are not allowed into boarding schools, and prostitutes are technically criminals), Briski is able to enlist the help of the Sabera Foundation and the Future Hope school for the children.

The documentary closes on a high note - Avijit is chosen to represent India at an Amsterdam world press photo exhibition.  The film concludes with a few notes about the future prospects for the children.  Not all the potential outlooks are equally bright, but Briski's on-going commitment to these children, essentially her extended foster family, ensures that they will each have a better future if they so wish it.

Born into Brothels is a heartfelt celebration of human spirit.  How refreshing for a change to see a truly exceptional yet completely apolitical documentary!  More importantly, this documentary suggests that even individuals of the lowest caste, if only given the opportunity, can raise far beyond their original station and truly achieve great beauty.

We Americans live in a highly privileged lifestyle much different from that of the rest of the world.  Films like Born into Brothels should serve to remind us of the debt of gratitude we owe our society.  Of the many opportunities afforded us, none is more precious and completely vital than education.  Without education, our children are lost, and if our children are lost, then so is our future.  Let us never forget that.

Video ***

Born into Brothels is shown in a 4:3 full-frame format.  The nature of the cinematography varies widely, depending on the film stock and who is handling the camera (children or adults).  Generally, the film stock is very grainy and is interspersed with numerous photographs, both color and black & white, of the community and brothels.  The transfer is quite solid and does not suffer from obvious compression defects.

Audio ***

Audio is presented in English or Bengali, mostly as direct sound, in either 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo.  The audio track is wonderfully flavored by regional ethnic music, both devotional and Bollywood-style.

Features ***

"We are one soul and nine bodies."

The DVD opens with trailers for the weirdly masochistic Murderball and amusing The Aristocrats.  There is no way to by-pass these trailers other than by fast-forwarding.

Among the actual features, there are two commentaries.  The first is a director track with Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski.  They offer a casual and humorous commentary, talking at great length about the children and their individual styles, aspirations, and personal lives.  Briski stresses the difficulty of capturing the photographs shown in the film and the continual dangers of life in the red light district.  On a side note, the degree of altruism displayed by Briski during the eight years of this on-going project is fairly astounding.  If the world only had more caring people like her, a lot of humanity's problems and in-fighting would simply dissolve away.

The second track is a selected scenes commentary (36 min.) by the children of the film.  Created in January 2005, this track shows the children as they view and react to the documentary for the first time.  They giggle and laugh self-consciously quite frequently but overall appear to be having quite a blast at this casual screening.  This featurette is worth watching not only to see the children again but also to experience some vicarious delight in their own unadulterated joy at seeing themselves in the finished movie for the first time.  Be sure to watch until the end for a touching message of thanks from the children to Kauffman and Briski.  Of all the features on this disc, this children's commentary is the most priceless.

"Reconnecting" is a short featurette (9 min.) re-examining the lives of the children three years after the completion of Born into Brothels.  It is quite a tearful reunion and one that begs the question - will Briski consider following the path laid by Michael Apted with his Seven Up-style series of films watching children grow up throughout their lives?

There are multiple deleted scenes (13 min.).  The first involves a field trip to an amusement water park.  The second is a trip to a photo lab to see how film is developed.  Noted photographer Bob Pledge is featured in an extended sequence discussing photograph techniques with the children.  The children speak about one of their own, Mamoni, and the abuse suffered upon her by her own family.  Mamoni's participation in the actual documentary had been truncated after her mother had withdrew her from the photography class.  Fortunately, there is a happy ending, as Mamoni has since been enrolled in a boarding school.

In another extended sequence, Briski talks to the children about the Amnesty International Calendar and the inclusion of the children's photographs in it.  Coincidentally, a book has been published complying many more of their photographs.  The final deleted scenes show the children's introduction to computers and the internet and Briski's coy comments about careful dieting in Kolkata.

Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman appear again briefly for an interview (6 min.) on the Charlie Rose show.  The interview was conducted about a month about the film won the Best Documentary Oscar (Kauffman and Briski's actual acceptance speech from the Academy Awards ceremony is also included on this disc).  In the Charlie Rose interview, Briski does most of the talking as she explains how the project, initially just a simple plan to photograph Kolkata's prostitutes, transformed into an entirely differently and ultimately award-winning film.  Briski describes her on-going relationship with the children and how the entire experience has changed her life (and continues to do so).

There is a small gallery of production stills (19 photos) showing the children around 2001 when the documentary was first shot and again in 2005.

Also on the disc are trailers for Born into Brothels, the vineyard documentary Mondovino, Game Over about the pivotal Kasparov chess match with Deep Blue, and Overnight.  More can be read about these films on the flyer included within the DVD case.

Aside from the flyer, there is a colorful booklet with short synopses of the children, including samples of each child's photographs.  Also within this booklet is a quick blurb about "Kids with Cameras," a non-profit charity created by Zana Briski to benefit the education of marginalized children worldwide through the art of photography.  The DVD also contains a short page about this charity as well including a web-link.


The inspirational Born into Brothels is a multi-award winning documentary reminding us that human spirit endures even in the most impoverished of settings.  This is a superb film and receives my top recommendation!

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