Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids
directed by Zana Briski & Ross Kauffman
by Walter Chaw In a troubling moment about halfway through Born Into Brothels, co-directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman take the children of prostitutes in Calcutta's Red Light district on a field trip to the zoo and then, in a series of jarring juxtapositions, compare their plight to that of caged animals (elephants, big cats, camels, and, yep, a monkey behind bars). Paternalistic, no question, the picture crosses the line that separates documentation from activism into do-gooder theatre, with the filmmakers' half-measures--no matter how well-meant--sometimes striking as meddling. And unlike Steve James's revelatory Stevie, there's no existential examination of whether or not interference is actually more harmful to the subjects than it is useful.
Exploitation is the central issue of Born Into Brothels and it's the one issue that is never broached. When young heroine Puja--armed, as all the children have been, with a camera and a mission to document her surroundings--is praised for the "boldness" that allows her to take pictures of people who don't want to be photographed (which Briski and Kauffman then show in their film), an extraordinarily troubling question should rankle the sensitive viewer attracted to this type of movie in the first place. In a very substantive way, Born Into Brothels is about dignity--making an Oscar-nominated film with images front and centre of people uncomfortable with the idea of exposing their poverty to a little girl on the block (much less liberal America) should give us pause.
One walks a very fine line in criticizing a film concerning a Western woman's attempts to "save" Eastern children from their horrific environments: it's the same pitfall that plagues any criticism of Holocaust films, and there needs to be a separation between a discussion of the film and the discussion of the act. No one in their right mind, after all, would advocate the selling into prostitution of a beautiful, vibrant ten-year-old girl, but Born Into Brothels represents a certain kind of missionary zeal that I find troubling--more accurately, distasteful. Another field trip finds the kids transported to a beach to shoot some more photos, and as they're coming home, the elation of these youngsters is captured in slow-motion to a rapturous score. It's hard for your heart not to break, watching doomed children dance with joy because their saviour has given them a treat--and it's hard for your heart not to harden once you consider that this film is extraordinarily manipulative and the instruments of our manipulation are these stolen images, lost children, and sculpted moments. When one child, Avijit, is allowed to accompany the children's travelling photo exhibition to Amsterdam, the scene that I wanted saw the kid coming across the flourishing sex trade there and reacting to the reality that the exploitation that claimed his mother back in Calcutta is alive and well and living in the promised land.
All that artifice stands at harsh odds with what we suspect to be the decay just outside Born into Brothels' meticulous mise-en-scène and artful pans and zooms. (And the shots of Briski looking mournful or expressing frustration begin to stink of a certain self-aggrandizing, Michael Moore-ian shift in focus.) Still, the film is impossible to dismiss: Despite the pretensions of its saviour/documenters, there remains the unaffectedness of the children, who tell better stories with a gesture and a look than a dozen poignantly arranged, shrewdly-composed trips to the seaside and brief forays into the West. Briski and co. mean incredibly well, and the kids' pictures are being exhibited and sold to benefit the children (in a way that's not made clear by the film), but we're a long way from the Maysles Brothers' direct cinema here. Reservations aside, it's impossible not to dwell on a child whose mother was burned to death by her pimp when he says, "There's nothing called 'hope' in my future." If the film were just these young innocents discussing their lives, I can't help but think that that spectre of ideological missions and the imposition of morality would have been exorcised for the greater good. Originally published: February 23, 2005.