I should start this review by mentioning that I had some reservations about seeing Born Into Brothels (IMDB), not because I didn’t want to confront the somber images of children living in Calcutta’s notorious red light district but because I recognize and am deeply concerned about the ethical problems of documentary, especially those non-fiction films that seek to represent other cultures. In his New York Times review, A. O. Scott comments:
The impulse to document the lives of poor, neglected and oppressed people, which motivates countless filmmakers and photojournalists, is unquestionably noble, but it is not without certain ethical difficulties. Vital as it may be to bring news of human suffering to audiences who might otherwise remain comfortably ignorant, such exposure does not always help the suffering.
Unlike Scott, I’d have to question the motivation of some of these filmmakers (though not necessarily Briski and Kauffman) and note that besides failing to alleviate their subjects’ suffering, such documentaries are inevitably partial, incomplete pictures of the lives they attempt to capture. Seema Sirohi also notes other ethical implications, observing that many of the film’s subjects may not have consented to having their photographs taken and now find their images projected in theaters throughout the world. Such observations might seem obvious, but in a film such as Born into Brothels, the material that gets left on the cutting room floor (or never gets filmed in the first place) may have profound political implications.
Brothels began as an attempt to document life in Calcutta’s red light district, but the prostitutes and johns were naturally suspicious of a white journaliust carrying a camera, and Briski quickly fell into the idea of teaching the children how to photograph. And her students quickly develop an enthusiasm for taking pictures as a means of gaining some semblance of control over their lives. One of the most talented photographers, Avijit, even receives an invitation to partcipate in a photography conference in Amsterdam, and his awareness of the power of the camera as a tool for documentation is rather compelling. The other children clearly bring their personalities into what they photograph. Their pictures are clearly marked by how they see the world, a perspective reinforced by the handheld shots in the city’s sidewalks filmed at the height of a child.
Briski also resists the temptation to deliver this material in a classical narrative style. While Briski’s immense efforts to help the children find places in boarding schools inform the film’s story, they don’t dominate the film. Born into Brothels isn’t a film about triumphing over difficult circumstances, even if some of the kids fulfill their goals of leaving life on the street. The film also avoids introducing “experts” who might stand in for providing us with “the truth” of life in Calcutta. Instead, we are more or less immersed into this particular world, and any wisdom about it comes from the people who experience it on a daily basis, especially the children, many of whom know very well that they may soon be forced to work on the line themselves. We even see some of the girls telling us their mothers have been asking them when they’ll start working as prostitutes.
Like Jeffrey Anderson, I think that Brothels would have been a stronger film if Briski had been more self-conscious about her role in shaping the narrative and in shaping the lives of the Calcutta children. While I don’t think that the film should have been “about” Briski or about her “journey,” a little more attention to her role as a filmmaker, teacher, and activist might have complicated the film in productive ways. The film is filled with poignant moments and powerful images captured by these young photographers, and while Briski avoids the temptation of offering a complete portrait of life in the red light district, the film still seemed to stop short of fully acknowledging these problems of representation.
Update: For some reason, I couldn’t find Amardeep’s review of Born into Brothels last night, but his comments clarify my interpretation of the film. I think he’s right that Briski’s involvement with the children has done more good than harm. In terms of the film’s tone, Amardeep also notes that Briski works hard to avoid making the film appear “voyeuristic” or “about herself,” and I think he’s right that this is actually a strength of the film, that this uncertainty may indicate a conflicted (in the best possible way) attempt to think about representation in new ways.
Amardeep also has tons of links, including one to an NPR interview with Zana Briski the day after she won the Oscar for best documentary.