Watching the first third of Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski's excellent documentary, Born Into Brothels (2004's Oscar winner for Best Documentary Feature), I couldn't help but think of Michelangelo Antonioni's avant-garde classic, Blowup, in which a callow photographer fancies himself a deep thinker because he takes pictures of people living in poverty while he himself lives in a posh flat and beds hot models.
It's not fair to characterize Briski—a British photographer whose subjects are prostitutes and their children living in the red-light district of Calcutta—as callow, pretentious or uncaring, but it's hard at first to shake the feeling that her work is somehow exploitative. We meet her as she begins teaching a photography class to some of the children of the brothels, showing these poverty afflicted kids a camera for the first time, allowing them the freedom to create their own images rather than simply be the subjects of hers.
While it's uplifting to see these kids come to life when given the opportunity to be creative, Briski and Kauffman do such a good job painting a picture of the harsh conditions they live in that you wonder if Briski's intentions aren't horribly misguided: Why is she giving these kids cameras when she should be giving them clothes, food, education, better living conditions? The photography classes are a Band-Aid for a gunshot wound, like the 15 cents a day Sally Struthers asks people to send to starving children in Africa.
After some time, though, it becomes clear that Briski is doing more than just teaching photography, and wishes she could be doing even more than she is. She repeatedly emphasizes that she is not a social worker or a politician, and as an artist, only has meager resources with which to help the children. Yet she does everything in her power to get the brothel children better schooling, and to help them improve their lot in life as best she can. It's hard not to cringe a little watching an auction at Sotheby's in New York City, where photographs taken by the children are perused by well-dressed patrons of the arts and bid on to raise money for the children's education.
Then again, we as viewers of the film are engaging in the same sort of guilt-reducing hypocrisy, and likely not donating money to charity for the privilege. Those thorny issues aside, Kauffman and Briski create a haunting portrait of life in Calcutta's brothels, while managing to temper the bleakness with a surprising amount of optimism that feels neither cheap nor unearned. Briski's children are clearly bright and eager, and, despite language barriers, she connects deeply with them through the shared power of images.
Although Kauffman and Briski never stray too far from the everyday challenges of life in the brothels, they inject a great deal of energy and hope into their narrative, showing the children eagerly taking photos and looking over contact sheets, or taking field trips to the zoo and beach to find new subjects to shoot. Briski's quest to find schooling for her pupils is a heart-tugging emotional journey, but it never seems contrived or overplayed. From her initial position as something of an impartial observer, she clearly develops a genuine concern for the children's welfare.
As a film, Born Into Brothels uses the standard documentary talking heads sparingly, since the subjects are children and thus less likely to sit still for interviews. Kauffman and Briski take us into the brothels and give us glimpses into everyday life: children working hard while their mothers attend to clients, some of the girls looking into what is most likely their own future. Simple yet evocative images, no doubt bolstered by Briski's photography background, say more than lengthy interviews ever could. It's no surprise that among the most powerful of those images are the ones created by the children themselves.
The questions raised by the film are not ones that will ever be answered in 80 minutes, but by focusing their efforts, both cinematically and in reality, Kauffman and Briski are able to provide some insights into potential solutions. As powerful and uplifting as the film is, the end results are tempered by sadness, and prove that no matter how good your intentions, some problems are insurmountable. It's not an easy lesson to learn, but it's one that the film imparts with grace and feeling.