Top Fifty Films of the 00s — Number Nineteen

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#19 — Born Into Brothels (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, 2004)
When evaluating documentaries, it’s easy to the conflate the worthiness of the subject with the quality of the filmmaking, which is why, for many years, Oscar pools could be won by determining which of the Best Documentary Feature nominees focused most sternly and seriously on the Holocaust. As with any other type of film, making a judgment on a documentary should be as much about how it tells its story as it is about what its story is. Born Into Brothels is about the children of prostitutes in Calcutta, India, particularly focusing on one small group that get an outlet for self-expression, and perhaps a grain of hope for a better future than the one practically carved out for them due to their station in life, through a photography class. In dealing head-on with the socioeconomic problems faced by these kids and their families, the filmmakers can claim they’re examining an important topic, but it’s their overall skill and thoughtfulness that makes their finished product memorable, moving and vital.

Besides co-directing, Zana Briski is one of the central figures within the documentary. Briski is a photographer who specializes in meshing journalistic instincts with visual artistry. She went to India specifically to shoot a series focusing on sex workers in Calcutta’s red-light district. Eventually, she befriending the offspring of these women, offering to teach them the art of photography, partially motivated by a sense that it was an appropriate response to her incursion into their lives. Cameras were handed out, film distributed, and the children were dispatched into their busy city to capture images that spoke to their experience, their lives. There’s no sense that the exercise is initially intended as path to rescue for the children. While Briski eventually works to help their art illuminate their plight to others, and collaborates to have their photos auctioned off or reprinted in calendars as a means to raise money for possible schooling, she is also grimly pragmatic, voicing a poignant awareness that, no matter what she does or what doors these photos may help to open, many of the children, perhaps most of the children, will be unable to escape from the cycle of poverty they were born into. Lives can change, but wishing doesn’t make it so, and sometimes concerted, devoted, heartfelt doesn’t either. This isn’t depicted as hopelessness or manipulative tugs at the heart. It simply is. It won’t stop Briski from trying, but she’s prepared to face setbacks with a sigh of acceptance.

That view, grounded in a consistently realistic appraisal of the way the world works, inform the entire film. It helps that Born Into Brothels doesn’t follow the increasingly common genesis of modern documentaries, starting with a filmmaker’s agenda and building an argument for a predetermined point. Instead, it is a story found that deserves telling. Zana Briski and Ross Kaufmann approach the material with restraint. We get glimpses of the hardscrabble life the kids endure, but the movie isn’t mired in it. It is presented plainly, assured that the troubles need not be callously dwelt upon to make them potent.

Potentially reflecting Briski’s experience as a documentary photographer, the film operates with a confidence in the resonance of a simple image. When the photographs of the children are exhibited in a gallery show, the clear concision of a shot that includes a privileged woman standing seemingly unaffected next to a snapshot that depicts the poverty that is the young artist’s subject and existence provides a more resonant underscoring of the divide between the haves and have-nots than any amount of emphatic pontificating ever could. It’s even more poignant because the youthful photographers are watching it back home in India, happily staring at the streaming video on a basic laptop in the middle of the darkened squalor, a world apart in every sense of the phrase. Similarly, the camera rapaciously takes in the vibrant colors of Calcutta, a city where beauty and dismay existence so closely together that they’re effectively indiscernible from one another. Briski and Kaufmann aren’t making a travelogue. They make no attempt to make Calcutta bolder or brighter, employing camera tricks to make the city burst across the screen. It’s just there on the other side of the lens, its contradictory charms readily apparent.

The filmmakers also take great care to bring the children to the screen as fully as possible. We’re seeing just a fragment of their lives, but we feel like we know them. We empathize with their troubles and take comfort, however briefly, in the satisfaction of their artistic escape. When one of the children, the soulfully gifted Avijit, proves to be not just an creative photographer, but a keen, insightful evaluator of others’ photos, his pleasure in sharing ideas is quietly thrilling. For perhaps the first time in his young life, possibilities are not just for others, but are maybe for him, too. Briski and Kaufmann make no promises in the way they structure their film. There is no warm nod given to the audience, telling us that these kids will be okay, rescued by their mastery of shutter speed. Life will proceed after the closing credits roll, and it will be good for some, less so for others. In this understatement is the film’s most gratifying quality: its unyielding commitment to truthfulness. That, maybe more than anything, is what the kids in the movie deserve.

(Posted simultaneously to “Jelly-Town!”)

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