Born identity

Born Into Brothels

These girls are at a crossroads between an education and a life of prostitution.

These girls are at a crossroads between an education and a life of prostitution.

Rated 4.0

Born Into Brothels is a compelling visit to the Sonagachi red-light district of Calcutta that earned filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman the recent Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. The film shifts from sensual submersion into an Eastern subculture to a mission-driven story of one woman’s relentless attempt to free eight children from the grip of the generational daisy chains of prostitution that has left legions of offspring with hopeless, dead-end futures.

In what has become a fashionable but nonetheless risky maneuver that could be deciphered as more self-serving than candid and exploratory, Briski herself becomes one of Born Into Brothels’ main characters. She ventured to Calcutta in 1998 and was met with general resentment as she began to photographically chronicle its thriving bordello colony. Over the years, she became attached to a group of youngsters who lived in the very houses and apartments where flesh peddling was the primary source of subsistence.

The kids were fascinated with her work, so she gave them some cameras, taught them how to use them and sent them into the tenement buildings, alleys and streets to capture the pulse, populace and peculiarities of their neighborhood. The story then gradually takes the form of a one-woman crusade to siphon the eight unofficial apprentices from the chaos and squalor of Calcutta and into educational boarding schools.

This is an honorable and arduous undertaking. And Briski and Kauffman are technically up to the task of capturing the essence of a life most of us never could imagine. They contrast haunting, slow-motion video sequences of a city that sometimes feels like one very long, snake-like alley with close-up photographic stills of children who resonate as displaced angels.

The filmmakers fuse music over the images in a way that spiritually transports us into a very specific time and place. And we watch as the children here play and dream and even wax philosophically about their daily lives, fears and what in all probability lies ahead.

The overall effect is riveting, but Briski gives herself too much screen time, and even when she was not on camera, I began feeling her fingerprints on most scenes. This does not neuter the story or its revelations, but it certainly does reduce its emotional impact and depth. I wanted less Briski commentary and more of the kids interacting with their siblings and friends without being under the tutelage or within arm’s reach of their mentor—and especially more of their relationship with their parents.

Born Into Brothels is about a micro-society within a sprawling cityscape. It is about kids with names like Kochi, Shanti, Avijit, Suchitra and Manik, who range in age from 8 to their early teens but sometimes express themselves with startling maturity. It is about kids who wonder what they might become given the right opportunity but accept life on its own painful terms. And it is set in a world in which fathers try to sell their own children; relatives anchor kids to their locked orbit of prostitution, domestic violence and substance abuse; and girls marry as early as age 11 and join “the line” of prostitution in their early and mid teens.

The film veers to locations and events best left for the audience to discover on its own. It shows the incredible power heritage has over outside influence, and it suggests how violence can become mundane, how history can have a cancerous effect on both the present and the future, and why saving one soul from an environment in which “nobody understands anything but money” is so priceless.

When Avijit, a promising young artist, comments on one photo of a girl in a hooded shawl standing in front of a tent, he speaks for both himself and this entire film: “This is a good picture. We get a good sense of how these people live, and though there is sadness, and though it’s hard to face, we must look at it because it is the truth.”

Somebody out there give me an Amen.