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Born Into Brothels

In relatively affluent societies like ours in the United States and other western countries, an underlying social assumption insists that all children deserve an education, and that this is a difficult, but attainable, goal. On the contrary, in many places around the globe, conditions are so atrocious that providing pedagogical or artistic tools and opportunities to children is little more than utopian fantasy. Not to be a bummer, but in countless developing nations, tens of millions of children struggle through lives of constant toil, filth, and ignorance. The problem is endemic and seemingly intractable enough that an unspoken prejudice develops: Are kids in the worst, most downtrodden and disadvantaged scenarios even capable of meaningful self-expression? Is there anything that can be done for them, apart from providing for the mere physical necessities of life? The Academy Award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels (2004) has an answer for both of these questions, and it's a resounding yes. The film profiles children in just about the worst situation imaginable: born to prostitutes in the rancid and notorious red light district of Calcutta, they'd most likely be destined for similar dead-end lives. The girls, especially, have almost no hope of an existence that doesn't involve working "on the line," as it's euphemistically known. Their savior, or the closest thing to it, is Zana Briski, a British photographer who made her first trip to India in 1995. For several years, she chronicled the lives of the women who ply their trade on Calcutta's mean streets, and in 2000 Briski began a workshop in which the children of these prostitutes, kids around 11 or 12 years of age, were given cameras, and lessons in their use, as a means to document their own lives. With filmmaker Ross Kauffman, Briski captured the effect of this simple gift on the lives of these extraordinary (which is to say, thoroughly ordinary) kids.

Born Into Brothels introduces eight children, each with their own uniquely downtrodden biography, and then shows a montage of their eye-opening photos. It's immediately clear that an artistic eye is an innate thing, regardless of one's culture or background. This is especially true of Avijit, the most creatively promising of the children, who possesses an uncanny, inherent sense of photography's ability to preserve time. "I like to turn my thoughts into colors," as he more succinctly puts it. As a social project, "Kids With Cameras" (as it came to be known) is a thing of wonder. As a film, Born Into Brothels has its weaknesses. At times it seems more Briski's story than the kids. At others it turns uncomfortably voyeuristic, capturing profane verbal abuse, and even some physical assaults, against the children. It's important to depict their horrific circumstances, but this is more subtly accomplished in the scenes where Briski must arrange for their HIV tests before they can travel outside India. ThinkFilm's DVD includes an audio commentary with Briski and Kauffman, but since the film itself relates so much of its own back-story, their comments are somewhat redundant. More affecting is a video commentary with the kids themselves reacting to selected scenes in the film (35 min.), as well as a short featurette (9 min.) revisiting the children three years after the events depicted in Born Into Brothels. A selection of deleted scenes (12 min.), a brief interview segment with Briski and Kauffman from the Charlie Rose Show (6 min.), and the duo's Academy Award acceptance speech (3 min.) round out the supplements. The disc offers a clean transfer in the original Academy ratio (1.33:1), with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio in English and Bengali with English subtitles. Keep-case.
—Marc Mohan

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