Born Into Brothels is a chilling documentary that brings you right into the red light district of Calcutta, India. Instead of its focus being on the lives of the sex workers who make up the majority of the females in the city, this film instead brings you into the lives of the children who were born into this place. The girls who are bred to take after their mothers and grandmothers as prostitutes, and the boys whose lives will be full of acts of crime in order to get by.
Photojournalist Zana Briski lived in Calcutta for several years and she teamed up with Ross Kauffman to make this film. People who reside in Calcutta typically become enraged when faced with the possibility of their picture being taken; even worse, the women are terrified of being found out as being sex workers. But instead of these reactions, Briski found that the children were intrigued by the camera; so she gave a group of eight children ranging from the ages of 10 to 14 a camera of their own to take photographs of things in their lives with. Briski frequently meets with these children, and we see them interacting in lessons about how to properly use their cameras and how to get the best results in their photographs. As the lessons progress and they continue taking photographs, we see their creativity start to flourish and they become confident in themselves and in their abilities. They were finally given the chance to express themselves and they are reveling in something we have all taken for granted time and again.
Though she makes a tremendous effort to bring art into the lives of these eight children, Briski knows that there is so much more to be done to make a lasting change in these people’s lives. She doesn’t want to see these children be doomed to a life of prostitution, crime, and poverty. She begins to take measures to help them begin a life outside of the red light district. She searches for boarding schools that will accept children who were born to sex workers, but sadly, she finds that few will.
When a place for each of the eight children is finally secured, they are enrolled in programs that will provide them with a proper education and help foster their new found passion to create. Throughout this process, the filmmakers were completely respectful of the wishes of the children. They made their own decisions whether or not to attend the boarding school, and by the end of the film, after filling out endless forms and ensuring that none of the children were HIV-positive, they did decide to attend and escape their lives in the red light district. They were also given the opportunity to travel to the U.S. when the photographs they took with the cameras Zana Briski had given them were being shown in an art gallery.
By the end of this documentary I had more questions than the filmmakers were prepared to answer. We were caught up on the lives of the children and what they were doing up until the wrapping of the film, and most of them had either dropped out of the boarding school they were enrolled in or they were taken out of school by their families. I still wanted to know what happened to them; if the girls had been taken out of school to follow in the footsteps of the females who came before them and if they were now working as prostitutes to help provide for their families. I wanted to know if photography was still a part of their world and how having that art form in their lives changed the way the view the world around them. I believe that art can change the world and I was really hoping that in this case, I would be able to see it do just that, for these children who are amongst those who need that outlet the most. I wanted closure, but it never came.
Overall, this documentary is heartbreaking, powerful, and tells a story of how creativity can change everything for someone who always had nothing. It builds you up and it carefully, and then abruptly, lets you come crashing down. The children of Calcutta, India had seemed to overjoyed to have the opportunity to receive a substantial education and the fact that they had either dropped out or had been taken out completely and utterly depressed me. But this is a film that has made an impact on me, which is important, and for that it is no wonder that it won an Academy Award. It was definitely well-deserved.
In addition to this documentary is a book of photographs taken by the children born into the red light district of Calcutta, India: Born Into Brothels: Photographs by the Children of Calcutta. You can also see a selection of their photos at Kids with Cameras.
Photo by elycefeliz