BORN INTO BROTHELS directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski. A ThinkFilm release in association with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films. 86 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 18). For venues and times, see Movies, page 90. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
When Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman got the news that their documentary Born Into Brothels was nominated for an Academy Award, they weren't lounging by a pool or waking up sleepy-eyed in some swank hotel.
They were back in India, surrounded by their extraordinary film's subjects: eight children of Calcutta prostitutes.
Their cameras were running, this time to capture the kids' reactions for a future DVD version. Just the next chapter in an incredible voyage that began in the late 1990s.
In 1998, after spending months gaining the trust of several Calcutta prostitutes, photojournalist Briski moved into a brothel to capture the women's lives. She found herself intrigued by their free-spirited children, who were curious about her camera.
What, she wondered, would it be like if she taught the kids, who ranged in age from eight to about 12, how to use a camera? What if we got to see this world through their eyes?
So Briski bought several point-and-shoot cameras, selected a group of children eager to learn and proceeded to teach them the basic principles of photography. She bought a videocam herself and organized class trips to places they had never been, like the zoo and the beach.
Suddenly, the dead-end kids were given the tools to express themselves and see their lives and their world in new ways.
"None of it was planned," says Briski, in Toronto with Kauffman to promote the film and the touring exhibit of the children's stunning photographs.
"It was just a matter of shooting and following what was happening, listening, watching and being open to what was there. I didn't know where the story was going. I had no preconceived notions."
Enthusiastic, she sent some video footage to Kauffman, who had earlier declined to get involved, in the U.S. After watching a few minutes of the kids, he hopped on a plane to India.
The film begins by introducing the kids and their photos. They range from the shy, unassuming young girl Kochi to the charismatic and talkative budding artist Avijit. The oldest, 14-year-old Suchitra, has haunting eyes, and her friends admit to the camera that she'll soon join "the line," a euphemism for becoming a prostitute.
Yes, even at 10 or 12, these kids are brutal realists about their futures.
"They's old souls," points out Kauffman.
"They were living in really tight spaces, so they knew everything about each other," adds Briski. "They knew what their mothers did. They didn't necessarily talk about it, so it took a lot of trust for them to tell us. But they knew what their futures were."
The second half of the film follows Briski's attempts to get the kids out of the brothels. Boarding schools won't allow children of parents with a criminal record. There are HIV tests to take, birth certificates to round up, piles and piles of paperwork.
"The bureaucracy frustrated me so much," says Briski, who in the film goes from paper-pusher to paper-pusher trying to gather documents, while her camera is secretly running.
"People exercise their power by saying no. You've got these people who have no power, so as soon as they get a little bit" - she indicates an inch or two with her fingers - "they say no, because now they can squash someone else. That's the way the system works."
Along the way, there are highs - one of the kids is chosen to attend a World Press Photo Foundation exhibit in Amsterdam - and lows, including a parent's violent death. Briski and Kauffman try to place the children in schools, but by the end we learn that only a couple have remained.
It's been two years since filming stopped, and the pair report that the whole troupe is doing well. They keep in constant touch via phone, e-mail and even text-messaging. Two of them speak fluent English, three more are out of the red light district, and the others are attending local schools.
Briski and Kauffman are building a school specifically for the children of prostitutes that will open in 2006.
"I was cynical, ready to quit filmmaking, until this," says Kauffman. "I couldn't see that films made a difference. But over the last couple of years there have been some incredible docs."
"One thing that's amazing for me personally is that we're selling their artwork," points out Briski. (Links to the artwork are available at www.bornintobrothels.com.)
"Those kids have made $100,000 selling their photographs. As a professional photographer, I can barely make $1,000 a year from my work. And people aren't just buying these works because they feel sorry for the kids. They are beautiful photographs. I believe that photographers, whether they're 12 or however old I am, should be able to support themselves as artists.
"The most important thing, though, is to see them changing things for themselves. They're affecting each other now. They're taking control of their futures, taking care of each other.
"Just think. Their siblings will be in the school that we're starting."
BORN INTO BROTHELS (Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman) Rating: NNNN
Despite its grim title, Born Into Brothels is a moving and affirming film about the power of art to transform lives. Photojournalist Briski teaches eight eager children in a Calcutta red-light district to use cameras, and soon they begin to see the world around them - and, by extension, their own lives - with new eyes. This isn't some short-term band-aid solution to assuage liberal Western guilt. Over the course of two years, the filmmakers empower the kids with self-confidence and try to get them into schools where they'll have some shot at a future. The journey, which includes frustrating encounters with bumbling bureaucrats and increasing worldwide awareness of the children's art, is riveting.