The Camera’s Weeping Eye

Toward the end of the Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels, a superb and piercing documentary by directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, a 12-year-old child examines a photograph. It’s beautiful, he says, because it shows us how its subjects live. The boy’s name is Avijit, and he’s from India. He speaks as a member of the Children’s Jury of the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam, but he could just as easily be talking about the documentary in which he appears.

Brothels is a beautiful, wrenching film in which a concerned Westerner enters a dark and hidden world and, instead of merely observing it, endeavors to change it. Photographer Zana Briski initially entered the red-light district of Calcutta to photograph the women working there. On and off for several years, she lived with the women, observing them in their tiny hovels, sitting with them as they killed time between customers. Eventually, the women warmed to Briski, but it was the children — immediately trusting and curious — who moved her to action. The photographer abandoned her own project, purchased 20 point-and-shoot cameras and set about teaching the brothel’s children to shoot photographs of their own.

The results are extraordinary. All of the students take to the work — some with sheer joy, others with curiosity, and several with a profound and precocious maturity of purpose. They document everything that surrounds them — the poverty, squalor, violence, desperation and heart-cracking beauty of survival in the face of abject misery. The film spends time with eight children and their portfolios. The effect is both respectful and penetrating: The children are not merely subjects but also artists. We travel into their difficult lives and see what they can do.

The children have no options. Almost every family lacks the money to send its children to school. Even if there were money, schools won’t take children whose parents are criminals. (Prostitution is illegal in India, as is selling drugs, which many fathers do.) With no education, almost every girl is destined to join “the line” as a prostitute. Some are sold by their parents into marriage or prostitution before they reach puberty. For the rest, it’s only a matter of time. A few boys manage to study at state schools, but others head toward drugs and violence.

Briski decides to get the children out of the brothels by enrolling them in boarding school. At first, it seems hopeless — no school will accept the children of prostitutes. Yet Briski keeps trying, navigating India’s Borgesian bureaucracy with astonishing patience. She also arranges an exhibit of the students’ work in New York City, selling the photographs to earn money for tuition. The World Press Photo Foundation takes a particular interest in Avijit and invites him to serve on the Children’s Jury in Amsterdam. He wants to go, but procuring a passport proves excruciating.

As Avijit says of the photo he judges, it isn’t easy to look at these children or at their deeply troubled families. They are poor, they live in squalor, and their suffering is written across every frame. But they are beautiful and true, and so is this film.

Categories: Movies