Born Into Brothels Review
There are many types of documentary film, but essentially they can be divided down into two types. One comes about through the choice of the filmmaker who has a topic or subject of interest to bring to the attention of a wider audience, showing them events they might not have previous knowledge or experience of, taking a fly-on-the-wall approach with the intention of revealing some underlying truth in the process of making the film. The other type of documentary isn’t content with revealing little-known facts or perceptions about a subject, but wants to intervene, show what it believes to be an unjust situation, and through its presence tries to make a difference, becoming in effect the subject of the film. The latter approach, used in Born Into Brothels, is usually regarded with some suspicion, but it’s hard to imagine how anyone could remain an impassive observer when confronted with the lives of the young children of prostitutes in Calcutta, forced to live in conditions of abject poverty, with no prospect of any other future than growing-up in the same red-light district, the young girls taking their place “in the line” like their mothers, the boys forced into a life of drugs, violence, and crime.
This was the situation encountered by Zana Briski, a New York photographer who lived for two years in the red-light district of Sonagchi in Calcutta - one of the bleakest places on earth - in order to gain the trust of the people there and allow her to photograph them. Of all the sights witnessed, the one that affected Briski the most was the plight of the young children born there and the tremendous internal strength, resilience, spirit and character they displayed despite the bleakness of their surroundings and hopelessness of their future. Finding that many of the children showed a fascination for the camera and the photographs she was taking, Briski equipped them with cameras of their own and gave them a few lessons on taking photographs. Not only did this appear to give the children some enjoyment in their lives and a sense of purpose, but Briski, - or Zana Auntie as she would become known to the children – discovered that there was an untapped talent within these children. Moreover, the children were able to take photographs of their surroundings from a different and perhaps truer perspective than an outsider. Briski believed that the talent shown in those photographs, the unique perspective they gave on a dark, secret, not to mention illegal profession and the lives of the disenfranchised people involved, deserved wider recognition, and perhaps in the process it could transform the lives of those children and take them out of the ghetto.
Born Into Brothels shows Briski’s efforts with a group of eight of the most promising children, helping them to develop their skills with the camera, and struggling to get their work the kind of media attention that could pay to get them an education that could quite literally save their lives. It proves to be an almost insurmountable challenge, the filmmakers encountering resistance from an administration that refuses to acknowledge the existence of the children of illegal sex workers, from the families who depend on the children to do hard, menial tasks to allow them to earn the little only they need to survive, and from the children themselves, disillusioned with their lives and beaten down by their environment.
There’s a certain amount of self-fulfilment in Born Into Brothels, the documentary being in essence its own subject, its purpose not to show the lives of poor children born to prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district, but to show how western filmmakers took a small group of them out of that environment. Even if that were all the documentary showed, and only a few children were spared the misery of life in a red-light district, it would still be a worthy project, since there is little else the filmmakers can do - certainly not cure some of the profoundest ills of the world. All they can do is draw attention to the children’s need for education and opportunity and hope that others will take notice and do something about it – but the ultimate result is out of their hands.
It is not even within their power to show the full horror of the lives led by the prostitutes of the Sonagchi district or the effect their circumstances have on their families and their young children, since it’s a dangerous place and people are evidently wary of westerners intruding into their lives. Using the children to take photographs themselves however provides a unique perspective, allowing them to show their world through their own eyes, affording them access to people and situations that are denied to the filmmakers and showing it in all its colour - the life, the hardship and the very real horrors that occur there on a day-to-day basis (and believe me, the abuse and language witnessed here can be very strong indeed). This however is an incidental benefit, since what allowing the children to photograph their environment really demonstrates is that, given the opportunity, these children who are considered more-or-less worthless cast-offs of society are indeed capable of developing themselves, showing wit, imagination, intelligence, creativity and genuine talent.
Born Into Brothels is released in the UK by Drakes Avenue. The film is presented on a dual-layer disc and is in PAL format. The disc is encoded for Region 2.
Born Into Brothels is presented in its original 4:3 aspect ratio and while the conditions in which the documentary is shot are evidently not perfect, the film looks well, capturing the atmosphere and the full range of colours present. The image is often grainy and colours are deeply saturated, suggesting that it might have been shot on 16mm, the film pushed to capture low-light conditions. Insert shots of the children’s photographs look crystal clear. There are no evident flaws or blemishes, nor any issues with the digital transfer of the material to DVD. The image does however appear to be interlaced, which might show blurring on a progressive display.
As a documentary, the audio track is evidently Dolby Digital 2.0 and this is more than sufficient here, the dialogue always being clear and forceful when it occurs, the music score – wonderfully capturing the vibrancy of the environment and the children – bringing the speakers fully into life. The Region 1 version of the DVD comes with a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, but I can’t imagine that surround sound could have been applied to anything but the music score.
English subtitles are provided and are forced. They are in a yellow font, but are in a tone that blends relatively well with the film.
Drake’s Avenue’s DVD release delivers many of the extra features you would want for this film, and after watching the main feature you’ll immediately dive into them for additional information on the lives of the children since the documentary was made.
This is mainly provided in Born into Brothels – Reconnecting (9:10), the filmmakers meeting up with the children again 3 years later in 2005 to see how their lives have progressed and how they have grown-up. They are all gathered together to see the film for the first time in Kid’s Video Commentary (36:22), a split screen showing the selected parts of the film and the children watching it. Their reactions to the film are worth seeing. Additional material is provided in ten Deleted Scenes (18:26), which are certainly worth viewing, showing among other things a trip to a water park, the children commenting on the background of the photographs chosen for the Amnesty International calendar, and having fun while getting portrait photographs taken. A Trailer (2:26) for the film is also included, curiously letterboxed and heavily cropped at a ratio of 2.35:1.
What is missing here however is background to the project and information about the filmmakers – the commentary and interviews contained on the Region 1 version of the disc are missing here on the R2. These would undoubtedly have provided an important perspective on the film’s making. Interestingly however, there appear to be more deleted scenes included on this R2 release than the 13 minutes of 7 deleted scenes on the R1.
Born Into Brothels is certainly uncompromising in showing the appalling reality in which the children of Calcutta's red-light district live – in as much as anyone can comprehend what it must be like it without actually living there – but the pay-back is worthwhile. The film uses the children to show the true nature of their circumstances, but it doesn’t exploit them, taking the time to understand their true nature and sense of worth and using the photographs they take to demonstrate the qualities that can be derived by investing them with time, education and opportunities. Put aside any reservations you might have about this Oscar Winning documentary and try to see it now that it has finally been released on DVD in the UK. Although lacking the perspective of the filmmakers, the UK DVD does at least contain a fine selection of extra features and a decent transfer.