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Noble ambitions: empowering a group of disregarded Calcutta youth.
Guest Writer

Witnessing the restorative nature of art
'Born Into Brothels'
by Amy Nuttbrock

ana Briski is a lanky, broad-gesturing idealist. Her hair is tied back in a grad student's
ponytail and she brims with a feverish desire to make things better.

In the Oscar-winning documentary, "Born into Brothels," we see her trucking officiously through crowded Calcutta alleyways, towing a brood of starry-eyed kids and holding an armload of frank, moody photographs.

Her ambitions are noble: To empower a group of disregarded youth, and encourage them to think beyond a future of pimping and prostitution. It's a tough job for any woman with a Western perspective and a point-and-shoot camera. Fortunately, Briski holds a lot of hope in her tiny, pinched shoulders and she remains indomitable.

"Born into Brothels" – which Briski co-wrote and directed along with Ross Kauffman – is a photo-diary of her efforts. Diverging from the scholarly, window-into-another-world format, this is documentary activism at its best. Within the film's 85 minutes, optimism and realism collide in a way that is both heartbreaking and uplifting. It's encouraging to witness the restorative nature of art, not to mention the power of an individual's selfless social outreach.

But, while Brothels aims high, it ultimately misses some major marks. The end result is a little too naive and life affirming for its own good.

Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, began traveling to Sonagachi, India, in early 1998 to document life in the Red Light District. Her intentions were research oriented. She arranged herself in a small, cramped apartment and observed this impenetrable, socially ignored community for the next two years. What she saw was a colorful, tough-talking clan of women who'd been working "in the line" for generations. Their careers as prostitutes began as early as age 14.

A flash of inspiration: seeing the District through young eyes.

It was the children of these women who grabbed Briski's attention most. They were fascinated by her camera, often gathering at her waist to peek at her work.

A natural teacher, Briski showed them how to take pictures. The kids were thrilled with her attentiveness and she was taken by their plight. In 2000, she had a flash of inspiration and organized a photography class.

She thought it would be interesting to see the District through the eyes of its youngest residents. All at once, her subjects became her collaborators and the idea of a documentary was born.

The eight children chronicled in the film are all of that charmed, pre-teen age marked by plucky intelligence and profound awareness. At the same time, they're delightfully ridiculous, funny, pervious, sweet and sneaky. Among them is 12-year-old Avijit, a restlessly creative, sometimes impetuous painter; Puja, an ebullient tomboy who snaps daring street-level portraits; and Suchitra, a patient, shy observer whose photo was chosen for the cover of Amnesty International's 2003 calendar.

The children's work – albeit professionally cropped and edited – provides the film with its most arresting images.

The children thrive under the support of their teacher, whom they affectionately refer to as "Zana Auntie." Many of them show a natural flair for photography and Briski optimizes their talent by organizing local exhibitions. She even arranges for one child to represent the group at the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam. All of the profits go toward funding boarding-school educations, i.e. escape routes from a future of sex work. This, no doubt, is a grand endeavor.

Recent reviews rave about the movie's emphasis on the transformative relationship between the children and their photography. Certainly, this is true. But the film also focuses a great deal on Briski's own reaction to the desolation of the Sonagachi brothels. There's so much photo-trafficking and red-tape walking that, at times, Briski seems to be on the set of a prime-time docudrama.

Somewhere in all of this, a measure of hope is lost. It seems a little unfair to rush in, as with a Band-Aid, and encourage these children to view themselves as artists in an environment that cannot support their talents.

Brothels by the book: the print version – professionally cropped and edited – is widely available.

About midway through the film, there's a scene in which the children are packed into a cab where they're jovially being carted off to a photo-op at a zoo. A yellow truck bumps along the road in front of them and the camera focuses on the vehicle's bumper, where we see the English words "Good Luck."

The frame lingers for a moment, then pans back to the kids, who are alternately giggling and gazing out the window. If you remember these words later, they seem a little flip next to the harsh social arrangements of the brothel. It makes you wonder what kind of adults these children might become if they're able to hang onto the sweet, ephemeral experience that Briski has provided them.

But that's another documentary altogether.

E-mail Amy at amynuttbrock@hotmail, and see more of her work in our archives.

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