Cinema Signal:

Writing, Directing, and Producing Documentary Films and Videos

. "Born Into Brothels" (aka, "The Kids of Sonagachi")

There's an age at which a child's destiny can be channelled away from the accepted norm of family, culture and environment. But, under what conditions would such an alteration in the path of one's life be acceptable? This film suggests that it might be when the circumstance of birth places a child in a caste system in which a female is obliged to take up prostitution in order to help her family survive--as well as to repay them for bringing her up. The matter of escaping such a life and choosing alternate possibilities is as alien as a documentary filmmaker trying to provide the stimulus and motivation for a group of Calcutta children to break away from their assumed futures as children of prostitutes.

Documentarian Zana Briski, a New York based photographer, with cameraman-codirector Ross Kauffman recording her every significant interaction with this subculture of a subculture might have simply documented their sad and squalid existence. We've seen it before, films whose essential purpose is to bring attention to this spot of human suffering or that. But her documentary takes a very different approach--one we catch on to from the outset when we see that she's as much a participant as any of the unprivileged kids.

Finding these seven chidren trustworthy and as responsive to learning as any Harvard freshman, whose concept of the outside world is inferred from TV, Briski sets up a class to teach them photography, and discipline, and options in life. She puts a camera in each of their hands and holds editing and critique sessions to develop their individual vision and sense of art. The resulting photos of the people, streets and textures of their impoverished red light community (Sonagachi) do, indeed, reach artistic levels, whether by well thought out arrangement or pure spontaneity. Zabriski appies an almost motherly approach to guiding their understanding of lighting and composition and going through a great deal of red tape to arrange a New York gallery showing.

If Briski and Kaufmann wanted also to raise their proteges' levels of sophistication and comfort in front of a camera, as well, the evidence of that is all over this film. As on-camera introductions are made, footage of each young artist in training is intercut, giving us a compelling understanding of their respective talents, awareness and uniqueness. As the personalities grab our sympathies as well as our respect, we come to understand Briski's process of selection and satisfaction in their attainments.

But their ambitions weigh in the balance against reality. Evidently, the parents of this flock, ofttimes single mothers and grandmothers, may have allowed their children the benefit and opportunity of learning under the English woman's tutelage, but allowing them the freedom to leave home for more promising prospects is another matter.

Briski's efforts to provide her wards with every possibility the society and its institutions makes possible is praiseworthy. And, if her efforts prove uneven in their intended results the outcome makes for a document on film that is as engaging as the variety of personalities and charm of its subjects. She can certainly be lauded for her intensity of purpose, which included the caontracting of hepatitis, malaria, dysentery and more.

These are children in a small patch of Calcutta where tourists visit at their own risk. Though they are born into the lowest level of Indian society, one of the facts that is made evident very quickly is that they are like any other children of their age: fun-loving, adaptable, quick to return attention and love. They are talented and... believe it or not... intelligent. But the outstanding virtue they have is personality, both as a group and individually. Getting to know them through the Briski-Kauffman lens is mostly a joyful experience, but always in the context of its harsh realities.

This is an outstanding piece of work, for its intelligent and tasteful approach, for the energy and vitality of its subjects, and for taking a youthfully energized cast of real characters to reveal the common aspiration to improve one's future. If children born into a life of squalor and deprivation respond so eagerly to caring, it illustrates the spirit that exists on whatever fringe of whatever free society you take as an example. In a dead-end environment of inevitable brutality, the opportunity to grab onto something that gives you identity and purpose is the realization of a dream.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  


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