Kathmandu, Nepal: Outdoor Film Festival Features Award-Winning Documentary -A Review of 'Born into Brothels' (2004)

Born into Brothels movie poster

In January of this year the Children of the Shadows outdoor film festival opened in the courtyard of the Patan Museum. A standing-room only audience gathered to see the outdoor cinema screening of "Born into Brothels" (2004). The film is the award-winning documentary depicting the lives of a few children born and raised in Calcutta's "red light district" as they attempt to learn photography.

The following is a review of "Born into Brothels" featured in the SF Gate. You can read the original blog post about the outdoor movie event here. The most remarkable thing about the entirely remarkable "Born Into Brothels" is its lack of easy sentiment. Set in Calcutta's red-light district, where 10-year-old girls worry about being sold by their fathers, the film might have gone for the water works. But "Brothels,'' an Academy Award nominee for best documentary, favors a clear-eyed pragmatism befitting its unforgiving milieu.

Photographer and filmmaker Zana Briski of London directed the picture with Ross Kauffman, but she's no mere observer. "Brothels'' follows Briski's efforts to teach photography to children in the red-light district, and later, to try to sell their work to pay for boarding schools. Before our eyes, Briski confronts and answers questions of exploitation that can shadow profilers of the downtrodden. She is not just documenting these unfortunate children, but letting them document, and therefore consider, their own circumstances as she introduces the possibility of escape. Is there self-interest in her campaign?

Certainly, there is. She made a film about it. But that hardly matters if her work can save even one girl from prostitution. Briski's lack of smoothness makes her compelling. The children can frustrate her. Many of her sentences start, "You should know by now...'' She's not a counselor or even a trained teacher, and she wonders aloud why she involved herself in the lives of children abandoned by most aid agencies. But her students, addressing her as "Zana Auntie,'' adore her for allowing them a means of expression, even if one of them keeps taking photos at night without a flash.

These kids show amazing resiliency. Puja, whose father beats her mother for failing to give him booze money, is a spirited young girl willing to photograph people on the street. (Inhabitants of and visitors to the red-light district -- not the most law-abiding folks -- resist being photographed). A girl named Shanti complains that her brother hits her, and then she sticks her hand in front of his lens to retaliate. We can see the roots of the children's sense of drama in nasty scenes of prostitutes hurtling obscenities at each other. "Born Into Brothels'' showcases the children's photos of friends and kittens and workers bent over pots. Their work is surprisingly accomplished yet still youthfully spontaneous -- especially the photo with Shanti's hand in the frame.

Photographs taken by a boy named Avijit are heads above the rest. Flourishing in a miserable environment, his talent is the tree growing in Brooklyn or flower sprouting through a sidewalk crack. Already a wonderful painter, he's a natural photographer. During an outing to the beach, he follows a creative impulse to pour a bucket of water in front of his lens.

The result is a photo of marvelous composition with a little something extra. Avijit's family runs the room where the men get drunk before visiting the prostitutes, and the preadolescent must act as enforcer when the men don't pay. But he also has a proud grandmother who shows off his art prizes. Briski and Kauffman don't judge the children's families -- these are, after all, people caring enough to allow their kids to take classes when they could be earning money by scrubbing floors. The directors' respect for the people of the brothels extends to the shots they choose. The squalor is always present but never magnified for effect.

The most telling sequence unfolds without commentary. It follows the children's return from the open-air freedom of the beach to the nighttime alleys of the red-light district. Avijit, a strapping kid who might be taken for older, shrugs off the clutch of a prostitute -- a move lent poignancy by how practiced it seems. Source: "Viewing Calcutta's red-light district through youthful eyes" by Carla Meyer -The San Fransisco Chronicle.

Join our mailing list

Get the latest outdoor cinema updates and benefits straight to your inbox

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published

Join our community of 4,000+ Open Air Cinema enthusiasts and professionals. Get exclusive tutorials, guidance and discounts in our weekly email newsletter.

Subscribe now 👇