With Born into Brothels, filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman redefine the term “photo opportunity.” In Calcutta’s red light district, Briski equips a small community of children with cameras, a do-it-yourself exercise that promises existential rewards. Children of pimps and prostitutes, the film’s documentary subjects photograph the horrors of their slum life: “People here live in chaos,” says Avigit, whose photographs help him to connect spiritually and philosophically to the world around him. These images are all blistering evocations of India’s rampant destitution from a sober first-person perspective, but the reality of the Calcutta’s poorest districts is seemingly undermined by the preponderance of these images and how sleekly they’re incorporated into the film’s unprovocative multimedia aesthetic. In shopping these photographs throughout the world, the filmmakers look to raise enough money to provide the children with educations. This is an unquestionably noble gesture, but because the film focuses too much on the production and trafficking of these images and not enough on documenting the world contained within them, Born into Brothels becomes a letdown of sorts. This wouldn’t be a problem if the filmmakers’ aesthetic-based humanitarian effort hadn’t failed them: Briski and Kauffman extol art as a liberating force, but the outcome of these children’s lives seems to have less to do with their relationship to their photographs than Briski’s own willingness to fight for them. Briski can scarcely be called self-congratulatory, but there comes a point in Born into Brothels where the documentary doesn’t so much focus on the children’s lives than her own reaction to their squalor. To their credit, the filmmakers seem to realize that their aesthetic aims promise only transitory rewards, and as such the film noticeably comes alive when the focus is not on the photographs these children have taken, but the horrors of having to navigate through the red tape of a system that wants nothing to do with children born into brothels.
- 83 min
- Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
- Slant is reaching more readers than ever before, but advertising revenue across the Internet is falling fast, hitting independently owned and operated publications like ours the hardest. We’ve watched many of our fellow media sites fall by the way side in recent years, but we’re determined to stick around.
We’ve never asked our readers for financial support before, and we’re committed to keeping our content free and accessible—meaning no paywalls or subscription fees. If you like what we do, however, please consider becoming a Slant patron.
You can also make a one-time donation via PayPal: