Sunday, February 26, 2006

Born Into Brothels

Born into Brothels, a documentary by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski looks at the lives of kids in the Sonagchi, a red light area of Calcutta. Zana taught kids to use the camera and has tried to weave a story of their lives using the pictures they took. The documentary also presents here efforts to get 8 kids to a boarding school and concludes with only 3 able to make it. The documentary won the Oscar in 2004 in the best documentary category.

Here is a link to some photographs by the kids: Kids with Cameras

Here is another viewpoint on the movie by Svati Shah: Born Into Saving Brothel Children
Don't quite agree with her take on the film, but if you have watched it, would like to hear your thoughts on it. If not, a documentary worth watching.


Hema Raghavan said...

Puru agree with you and I also disagree with the Samar article. Here is something I posted.

tejal said...

hema i read your post... and i agree that the movie can be thought of as being about Zanas experience with the kids and nothing more.... whether her way of going about things was right or wrong is another question not necessarily dealt with in the movie....
but in the same vein then i dont think the movie deserved an award
i agree with the some of the points of the article by svati shah...the movie does raise some very important questions about how the situation of children born into brothels is handled...when we saw salaam bombay... the scene when the little girl is made to live in the juvenile home by the state because her mother is a prostitute irks us....and we wonder whether seperation of the kids from the parents is the right way to do things... but at the same time when zana gets the kids away to a boarding school we end up thinking it is a good thing....
why we view two similar situations differently in different movies is an important question...and if the answer lies in the potrayal of the situation then it does raise questions about ethics in documentary making...
i didnt think of all these things when we saw the movie that night... but when i read the article by svati and the comments on the article.... i think she has a point..

Anonymous said...

I think it is unfair to equate the situation that was portrayed in "Salaam Bombay" with the one shown in "Born into Brothels". In "Salaam Bombay" the person running the juvenile home has already assumed that a prostitute is incapable of taking care of her child, which is clearly irksome. And the director brings across this point very well.

However, I do not think Zana is trying to argue that prostitutes are incapable of taking care of their children. All she is trying to say (and rightly so) is that the prostitutes and their children need a little help so that the kids do not follow their parents in their "line". The environment surrounding the kids (protrayed in the movie) is rather hostile and arguably, not favorable to their development. In fact, some of the kids themselves say that their parents/uncles/aunts want them to get "in the line". Now do you think it is desirable to leave them behind in such an environment to be taken care of by their parents/relatives? Maybe placing them in boarding schools is not the best idea either (and I don't think thats the point in the movie). All the movie is trying to say is that providing kids with a little change in environment and access to opportunities can dramatically alter their lives. I think Svati Shah really went overboard in her criticism.


Hema Raghavan said...

If you read Svati Shah's article (last 3 paras), she seems to be criticizing Born into Brothels as if it were a documentary essay about Songatchi's children, which I think it is not.

I'll reiterate what I said before. I think what the movie does is for the most part gives us a window into the lives of these children who are in the movie specifically. The way they express themselves through their new found skill plus the new exposure that they get when she takes them to the zoo and beach etc are the same responses that other children have. In some senses that strikes a chord with the viewer that these children are children period; given a set of opportunities they will blossom like any other. I don't think Zana is trying to propose the boarding school as a generic solution for all the kids in brothels in the movie.

In Born into Brothels the kids parents agreed to put the kids into school. It was a choice of the kids and their parents; maybe the latter were convinced with some prodding. In Salaam Bombay, neither the kid was dragged by the police and put into a juvenile home, and the parent was not allowed to take the kid out at all. In Born into Brothels atleast one of the kids went back home out of her choice.

All in all I think as suddu says providing an option with a change in environment is needed. I dont think the movie is preaching a solution.

However, it turns out that Zana has indeed started a school for kids, which in itself I think is not a bad thing. But another question that came to my mind is: If you start a school excusively for kids from brothels (maybe her school is not exclusive), wont they face the same problem of being outcast by mainstream education when they go to junior college?
I dont know and its a thought that came up.

Purushottam said...

If you start a school excusively for kids from brothels (maybe her school is not exclusive), wont they face the same problem of being outcast by mainstream education when they go to junior college?
I am not sure if it is a problem of exclusivity alone ... the movie indicated that there are few schools that actually admit kids from brothels. Looking at the reverse case, in a open school (which I hope her's is) where several kids from brothels study, how many non-brothel kids will be admitted by their parents? and I think this may be one of the first steps in creating these separations.

tejal said...

like i said earlier, i agree that maybe the point of the movie is not to provide a solution but to tell a story of those 8 kids who were Zanas students. however if you read the comments on svatis article (made mostly by westerners) they in some way justify svatis analysis of the movie as u realize that by many people the movie is seen as a depiction of "sonagachi" or the "kids from sonagachi" and the after taste of the movie is the need for
one of the comments says that the movie is a tribute to children and their wonderful ability to create beautiful things even in the most adverse circumstances and that is what it is... i agree.
But the exclusion of many things in the movie, most importantly the fact that there are many organizations doing good work in the area, gives an incomplete picture of Sonagachi.
for people who watch the movie because it is an oscar winner, it is a potrayal of sonagachi and not just a story of 8 kids, and then the incompleteness of the movie becomes more serious.

Purushottam said...

Attached below is Swati's comment ...

I wanted to be fair to Briski given the reservations Hema, Puru and Sudu seemed to have with the Samar article. So I watched the movie twice frame by frame.

One important point of divergence with Hema- "Zana says she is not a social worker and I think the movie is about her experience." The movie is not a "documentary essay about Songatchi's children.. gives us a window into the lives of these children who are in the movie specifically". I am not quite clear what you mean. I think it was sufficiently clear that at the very least the documentary aims to portray lives of children born to prostitutes in Calcutta, hopelessness of their situation and the possibility of change through providing them skills- artistic. Here, the movie transgresses boundaries between art and interventionism and becomes vulnerable to a lot of criticism that Svati Shah clearly lays out.

A little background about Zana- trained as a photojournalist, she won a fellowship to complete the work on prostitutes in Calcutta she started in 1997. The end result, i.e. this film received its first theatrical screening at the Human Rights Watch Festival. After which, the movie has been screened for a wide variety of audiences since in Zana's words "it's about connecting with people and raising awareness. But if my life can inspire people, that's what I have to do. My idea is to be of service." I think we can venture to guess Zana hopes to use the movie to raise consciousness about the plight of these poor kids. So far in her career, Zana has chosen other interesting subjects, like female infanticide in India, life in a red light area in Calcutta and next on her agenda is Kashmir. Even if I suspend my view that the movie 'does not preach any solutions', I am afraid the same cannot be said about Ms Briski's intentions. "also we're planning to build a school specifically for children of prostitutes, which will open in 2006, and that will be a school of leadership and the arts. It's a very radical thing to do, for Calcutta."

I am quite perplexed. Briski couldn't have been unaware of the innumerable projects already underway to improve the lives and status of sex workers in Calcutta. There is no mention of the financial institutions, health clinics, sex education schools, blood banks and schools set up for the community. When the kids are HIV negative Zana is surprised but there is no room for reflection. She deftly bypasses any discussion on the high degree of awareness about HIV/AIDS that exists among the prostitutes of Sonagachi and their insistence to serve clients only if they wear condoms. The film does not tell us the reality of Calcutta- that it is a city where the red-light district is a safe refuge for its sex workers and their trade. Attitudes to stories of children in dire circumstances in underdeveloped countries are never neutral. The images in the movie evoke powerful metaphors for denied childhood and futures without hope and children without any advocate. The entire tone reeks of a post World War II to 1980's developmentalist hangover. Is that a mere aesthetic decision or does it have deeper roots? One can only guess but the implications need to be discussed. Briski's films portray these women and their families as exploited subjects, who have been saved either by the benevolence of the Christian white man or the filmmakers themselves.

Zana and Ross claim to give the children of the brothels access to means of self-representation by equipping them with cameras and providing their photographs a platform for the public of first world. Her portrayal of the problem isolated from the uneven capitalist development, the reach of state power and, crucially, collective struggles on the part of prostitutes for their civil and labor rights is deeply problematic (and orientalist). This setting apart of the children's question from the wider political economy serves to set stage for her solution education and art to change their lives forever. Indeed, the film disavows the struggles of the prostitutes altogether, focusing instead on the life of the victimized child in need of humanitarian salvation. A defense of the movie's humanitarian logic surely rests on assumptions about the transparency of the documentary images especially since these seem to come directly from the cameras of the children rather than any preconceived designs of the Western filmmaker.

One of my problems with the movie is the one sided story. Images of the blatant degradation of red light areas in the movie I do not see the other reality, the endurance of the spirit of these people, their own battles and their triumphs to change their world. The only voice we hear is Zana Briski.


Other sources:

Monthly review:


Letter from a sex worker Swapna Gayen also the secretary of Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Calcutta to Telegraph:

Interpreter of the film Partha Banerjee raising several issues

Interpreter Parta Baneerjee reflects:

Hema Raghavan said...

I read your post and browsed through
the links you posted. I think there seem to be two threads of criticism there and they may not be entirely independent:

1. What your post and Swati Shah's article
imply: "the documentary aims to portray lives of children born to prostitutes in Calcutta, hopelessness of their situation and the possibility of change through providing them skills- artistic."

2. Ethics: hidden camera, photographing people who dont want to be photographed, plagiarized music, not making it clear which kids are those of prostitutes etc. etc

Now when I saw the movie I did not think point number 1 was true. But it seems to me from reading Zana's excerpts of her speeches and her openiong of the school etc that her movie may not be as simple
as we think it may be (especially with her opening of a school).

Point number 2 is valid irrespective of the intentionality of the movie.

Getting back to point number one which is more controversial, I think Swati and Svati :)pose valid questions given that Zana seems to be using as a tool to promote her view social change in Sonagatchi.

Anywyas I am copying Partha Banerjee's 10 point summary below. I think I agree points 4,7, 8 need to be addressed by her if she has greater intentions with the movie, meaning if she is promoting/raising funds for social change using the movie as her premise.

Maybe her idea for social change came about after she made the movie.
It is also possible that she cannot address these questions in the 2 hour time-frame of a movie. But I agree the movie should not be used as a tool wherein you see the movie and go donate to the cause of "kids with cameras" without talking about these intermeidary questions.

Thats said, had the movie been left as is, without seeking to promote some cause, and if issues in point number 2 was addressed would it have been more okay?



Now that Born Into Brothels got the Hollywood Oscars, the questions that still linger about the documentary are:

(1) Did the producers and directors ever get permission from the sex workers to show their kids and lives to the world (including Calcutta and India) and aren't their identities now widely exposed because of the new fame and glory and global distribution of news (for example, see big papers Anandabazar and Telegraph, Calcutta, March 1, where they've published names and schools of these kids);

(2) Why did the filmmakers show only the nasty side of the sex worker parents' lives (portraying them as stupid and cruel) and not the positive side esp. how they've been *intelligently*raising their children round-the-clock and protecting them from any harm (you have to see these kids to believe how innocent they still are);

(3) Will the filmmakers ever show the entire film to the children and their parents and how the sex worker parents have been portrayed (not parts of the film, but the entire film should be shown to the featured sex worker parents and their children - it's only fair);

(4) Why did they completely bypass the fact that the local activists have turned that area into a safe refuge for sex workers and that their efforts have brought down the AIDS rate and poverty to a remarkably low level, among other achievements (these activists are very unhappy that their hard work is completely ignored by the filmmakers);

(5) What is the directors' relationship with the local activists like, and if it's not good, why so (did they ever try to build a relationship with them or did they always ignore/bypass them);

(6) How much money exactly they've raised through the film and calendar, etc. (the directors claim "hundreds of thousands of dollars," see Ross Kauffman's interview in Washington Post) and how much of it went to the kids and how much to their parents, if anything to the parents (and isn't it humane to get the parents out of the misery too without breaking up the families);

(7) Why do the filmmakers emphasize so much on yanking the children out of their families and putting them into missionary boarding schools (when there are so many other good schools in Calcutta that are much less expensive and the money could've been spent to rehabilitate both the children and the parents, plus more);

(8) What are Zana Briski's views about Calcutta in general (often she told me they were negative) and does she remember that she was given shelter and protection, during her short stays, by those sex workers and activists (the women she stayed with say now they're not happy that they never got to see the work or the money);

(9) How much time Ross and Zana spent in total in Calcutta over the past few years and what is their Bengali language proficiency (which would be good indicators of their familiarity of that place and its way of life - we know that they were completely dependent on translators and interpreters like myself - and we did much more, on our own, for the project);

(9) Did they ever get permission from Satyajit Ray film authorities in U.S. or India while lifting Ray's/Ravi Shankar's music for the film (the answer is "no"); and

(10) How come they've shown all the children to be those of sex workers' when they're actually not, and isn't that unethical, and dangerous for the children?