Flickering between shots of a red-light district in India and the wide-open eyes of young girl, Born Into Brothels poses a difficult question from its very beginning: Whose film is this, anyway? Who is shaping and interpreting the vibrantly horrifying images onscreen, the two Western filmmakers or their Indian protégés, eight children who have been given film cameras to document their lives in Calcutta's brothels? The answer lies somewhere in between, lending Brothels a sort of awkward brilliance; the film is an unforgettable and uncomfortable glimpse into despair and the (sometimes) transcendent power of art to forge connection -- and escape.
Photographer Zana Briski teamed up with writer/director Ross Kauffman to make this movie after Briski had spent years earning the trust of sex workers whom he photographed in the slum of Sonagochi. She had also started weekly photography classes for eight of the prostitutes' children, who form the indelible heart of the film. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, her students have the preternatural maturity of children pushed out of childhood too soon. They've already seen their parents' failings: a once-strong father who has the drawn face of a corpse, thanks to his opium addiction; exhausted mothers turning toxic tongues on one another, on their children's tender ears. “There is nothing called ‘hope' in my future,” says one of Briski's students. He is 12.
The filmmakers dedicate much of their film to telling a piece of each child's story, each segment framed by the students' photographs. Their work is a revelation, every photo breathing out a bit of the way the children see their world. The fearless Puja, whose great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother are all sex workers, dares to take photos on the street; the beaming Suchitra, whose aunt is threatening to force her to work “on the line,” snaps serenely beautiful portraits; Avijit, who displays both a child's rashness and enthusiasm and a sort of old-soul wisdom, captures vigorous and impeccably composed images.
Briski begins to involve herself in her students' lives more and more -- attempting to place them in good schools, to fly one of her most talented students to an art show in Amsterdam. While she sidesteps the Jesus-y shenanigans that can result when filmmakers intercede on the behalf of their downtrodden subjects, Briski does tug the film's narrative line a bit askew; the transition between the children's stories and Briski's grapplings with the beyond-Kafkaesque bureaucracy in India is initially jarring. Jarring, too, is the occasional too-broad visual commentary on the children's lives, as when Briski takes the children to the zoo and seems to contrast the children's futures to the fates of the penned-up animals.
For the most part, though, Brothels dwells on its subjects' thoughts, the visual means by which they create meaning from their lives. Firebrand Puja's best friend is the extraordinarily philosophical, gentle boy Gour. The documentary tenderly reveals their friendship, and Gour's own thoughts on his photography. “I want to show in pictures how people live in this city … . People live in chaos … I want to put across the behavior of man,” he says, before telling Briski he wishes he could take Puja away from her likely future as a sex worker.
Brothels is troublingly beautiful -- each shot exquisitely framed, saturated with color, shadow and light, the lightbulbs flickering with flies, the lipstick on the women's faces, hard with anger, forced laughter, flirtation. And yet Brothels doesn't give the children's poverty a pretty squalidness, a sexy seaminess; the camera reflects the way the children themselves gain distance from their lives, frame them, alter their relationship with what they are seeing and experiencing. Briski's classes seem to have given the children a way to control and shape and define the experiences around them, to pull back, to contemplate other realities in the space behind a camera lens.
The film is similarly clear-eyed about the children's prospects. They were born into brothels, and, in a cruel update of the caste system, the labyrinthine Indian bureaucracy and the stigma against sex workers will likely keep them there. Briski also captures the devastating pull of hopelessness and fear on those with limited options: better the devil you know than the blank page, full of potential promise and treachery, the terror of hoping for something that is beyond the life you've imagined.
Even for these children who cannot leave the brothels, their art helps them document fleeting moments of grace: a sister's hand among strings of light, two pet bunnies, the sleeping mother, a self-portrait on the street. A grandmother looks over the contact sheets her grandchild has made -- shots of life in the closed-in brothel rooms, on the streets, on the rooftops, where the children play. “My God,” she says. “How beautiful.”
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.