BORN INTO BROTHELS
Review by Ed Nguyen
Zana Briski and the children of Sonagachi, Kolkata
Director: Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski
Audio: English & Bengali 5.1 surround or 2.0 stereo
Video: Color, 4:3 full-frame
Features: Commentaries, deleted scenes, Charlie Rose interview, re-union featurette, production stills, trailers, booklet
Length: 83 minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2005
keep thinking if I could go some place else and get education, I wonder what I
(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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
are one soul and nine bodies."
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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
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).
is a small gallery of production stills (19 photos) showing the children around
2001 when the documentary was first shot and again in 2005.
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
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