BORN INTO BROTHELS
CALCUTTA’S RED LIGHT KIDS (2004)
Aka: THE KIDS OF SONAGACHI

THE FIRST STONE

Zana Briski is an intense photojournalist who has found herself born again as a documentary filmmaker. She is 38 years old and was born in London. She seemed to have relocated in America for her education. She is a graduate from the University of Cambridge, with a background in Biology and a master’s degree in Theology. But ultimately she studied documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York.

In 1995, she traveled to India. She had been given a six-month assignment as a photojournalist—to do a piece on prostitution. But she was soon confronted with formidable odds. No one wanted to be photographed. As Roger Ebert wrote,” Her subject melted away. It was all around her—yet invisible to the camera.” What she did encounter were the children of the prostitutes—all wide-eye, bold, curious, standing behind her, hugging her legs, wanting to peek through the wondrous camera lens.

In Sonagachi, a small crowded section of Kolcata (Calcutta); there are 7,000 women and young girls working as prostitutes. Some are forced into it by their caste, by their poverty, or their parents. Sex slavers from their homes in Nepal and Bangladesh have kidnapped many of them. They come from all the castes, and they are reduced to the role of pariah—exempt from society’s scrutiny, education, or protection. They are castaways on an island of depravity prominent in the middle of a modern city—hidden in plain sight. There is only one group that has a lower standing—their children.

For the denizens of this underworld, cameras are taboo. For prostitution is illegal. Trafficking drugs is illegal. But clearly, every criminal element aligned themselves with some in the political system—from the pimps to the police—right into the pockets of the judicial system—all have their sweaty palms upturned, and their hands out for their piece of the wages of sin. The graft, like dry rot, like termite nests, runs deep.

These children have to live every moment with their stigmata—that they are considered the vile spawn of filthy whores. They live without self-esteem, without hope, without childhoods. They are beaten, sexually and verbally abused regularly. Young girls are routinely “turned out”, or “put out on the line”, at the very onset of puberty—ages 12-14. Some of the boys become prostitutes too, or pimps, drug dealers, or callous criminals.

Briski, both repulsed and fascinated by the children’s plight, began to interact with them, getting to know them. That was, of course, when they were not being forced to cook or clean, or run errands as drug mules. Roger Ebert felt,” The faces of these children are heartbreaking. By now, their brief “childhood” is gone. Far away from the sordid world of the brothels, India’s economy is booming. These wretched poor exist in a separate and parallel universe—without an exit.” He made an interesting reference to a film directed by the Danish director, Jorgen Leth—THE FIVE OBSTRUCTIONS (2003). Lars Von Trier functioned on that film as an “Obstructor”. Leth had been given the challenge of making a film five different ways, involving specific obstructions. One of them was a mandate to have to shoot part of the film “In the most miserable place on earth”—which they decided was the red light district of Mumbai. Interestingly, Leth was unable to deal with the assignment.

Talking about her first encounter with Sonagachi, Briski said,” The moment I stepped into the maze of alleyways—I knew that was why I had come to India.” She came up with the postulate that some of the children could be “helped”. Following up on their natural naiveté and curiosity, she purchased some simple point-and-shoot 35mm cameras, and she picked eight children to work with. She began to teach photo workshops.

Actually, initially she started out working with two groups of children, but one of the groups was predominantly made up of Mafia kids. The Mafia immediately wanted compensation, to be paid a fee, and they wanted control. They insisted that no girls be allowed to attend the workshops. Briski dropped her association with that group quickly.

“The unendurable is just the beginning of the curve of joy.” –Djuna Barnes.

In her focus group, she had five girls—I recall Kochi, Puja, Shanti, and Tapasi, and there were three boys—Avijit, Gour, and Manik. The workshops had to be set up in various brothel rooms without heat, tables, and chairs, running water or toilets. One had to take a broom and first run out the rats, and then sweep their thick droppings off the rough-hewn floors. Briski started teaching solo. Looking at the excellent photographs the children began taking immediately—she became very excited. These barely scrubbed children, who were used to the brutality of the brothels, learned about camera basics—lighting, composition, the development of point-of-view, editing, and sequencing for narrative. They completed weekly assignments, and participated in group photographic junkets. They had never ridden in taxis before, so the taxi rides that were arranged for them became as zany, as exciting as Carnival rides. They were overjoyed. They smiled until their jaws ached.

Their daylong trek to the sea must have been the high point of their young lives. Suddenly there was no maze, no whores, no drugs, vermin, and Johns—there was just the majesty and the magic of the ocean, with its massive pounding waves, its white beaches warm with thick sand, its wide horizons where one could look clear to the edge of the world and only see more water, and not have their views obstructed by the crumbling decay of the inner city. It was all capped off with the wonderful sting of the salt air—that olfactory gift given to every soul on all beaches, bordering all oceans—kelp, urchins, crabs, driftwood, and bleached shells picked clean of their occupants by ravenous gulls—and more smells, undefined and subtle, creating dynamic sense memories that would last a lifetime.

In short order, Briski became completely engrossed in just the teaching, in reaching out to these children. They all looked forward to the sorting, displaying, and choosing of the best of that week’s photographs. Her personal cameras sat idle, while the children ran the streets clicking madly and beautifully. Many of their photos, their visions, were stunning. She watched pride begin to gestate in them, and she noticed that in some cases the family of the children, especially the grandmothers, began to share in the commodity. She felt driven to buy a couple video cameras, and she began to record on tape the events, and the families. Her project, her assignment morphed into something unique, something fresh and new—whereby the children of the prostitutes began to deserve the complete focus of her work. The whole world, the reality of prostitution shifted into an out-of-focus ambience, just peripheral window dressing secondary to the vital throb of the children’s new education, and eventual transformation.

She filled up four video VHS tapes, and sent them to Ross Kauffman, who was her boyfriend at that time. He was a professional film documentarian, an editor, and a sometimes cinematographer—working for years on other people’s films. During their six-year relationship, he always marveled at how crazy and how brave Briski was. She tended to leap into situations impulsively—and somehow make them work out. As a professional, he had been acutely aware of many other compeers, filmmakers who had pursued their own “great” ideas—and committed all their present and future resources into the making of a documentary film.

He watched them spend several years on their projects—becoming obsessed with the films, and the concepts—only to witness the projects, the films die on the vine—never come to any level of fruition. Even someone with the clout and the vision of an Orson Welles had no guarantees. Getting a film made, with little to no budget, is only the first major hurdle. Then it had to be cut, looped, and scored—only to later have to make the rounds applying for the privilege of being screened at various important film festivals. One had to travel with the film, and market it. A film is still born until it is purchased for release by some significant entity—like Turner, HBO, Showtime, or A&E—even PBS might do in a pinch. But, regardless, Kauffman found himself fascinated by Briski’s videotapes, and he joined her in India.

Zana Briski is naturally shy, but she kept discovering herself in front of the camera. Viewing dailies seemed like something alien to her. She hated the way she looked and presented herself. But she understood that she was the primary catalyst for the entire film project, and for the process—and her goal, far from self-engrandiesment, was to help some of those children escape their dark and dismal fates—to break the vicious cycle of the brothels. A place where grandmother, mother, and daughter all worked in the trade, and took turns on the line, living together in a small cramped apartment—an apartment that had to double for a whore’s palace when the Johns arrived. Mired in the turgid mix were the children, scurrying about trying to grow up despite their environment—in the virtual teeth of it. Many of the grandmothers, it seemed, were aged enough that they no longer pursued prostitution. They sometimes appeared almost endearing, affectionate, caring, close to charming. The mothers, still actively involved in creating revenue with their very flesh, usually were angry, sad, traumatized, stoned, or abusive. The children naturally gravitated toward the grandmothers. Even the best of the mothers were passive and other-directed at best.

There have been other films that have used underprivileged children as their protagonists. Most of the time, those children are portrayed as hopelessly caught in untenable situations. Films like Hector Balenco’s,

PIXOTE (1981), about the street urchins of San Paulo—or Barbet Schroeder’s, OUR LADY OF THE ASSASSINS (2000), about the many young men who become prostitutes and thugs on the streets of Medellon, Columbia—or even Mira Nair’s, SALAAM BOMBAY (1988), about the street kids of Mumbai.

In my view, though, Briski and Kauffman have created something unique—almost a pure documentary. It is a film that celebrates that miniscule kernel of hope that resides in each of our souls—salutes one’s driving need to strive for a “better life”, and our hoary spirit of survival, regardless of the odds. It illustrates that a particle of acceptance, and a shred of dignity can be achieved through exposure to Art. One critic wrote, “ Briski brought the children to life—with a clarity that was illuminating of their intelligence, their budding talent as photographers—giving them a real capacity for finding a kind of beauty, even in despair.”

It is like the power of a single photograph—say of a bright yellow flowering plant sprouting up strong from the char of a blackened dead stump.

“ A gem is not polished without friction, nor man perfected without trials.” –A Chinese proverb.

So Briski’s wonderful film captures that noble journey of Empowerment. It is somewhat reminiscent of several films done about the underprivileged children from the ghettos of New York City—kids literally lifted from the dregs of their dead-end surroundings by the Arts—like Meryl Streep playing the real-life Roberta Guasparie, who taught children from the inner city to play violins in MUSIC OF THE HEART (1999), or Alan Parker’s terrific movie, FAME (1980), all about the New York City High School for the Performing Arts.

While Briski was in Sonagachi by herself that first six months, she has stated that she was frightened the majority of the time. Passing in and out of the red light district, she was often mistaken for a prostitute. Drunken men scared her, accosted her, and made her life miserable. The inhabitants of the brothels never did fully accept her. She was endeavoring to film and shoot in an area where absolutely no one wanted their picture taken, or their lives documented. They preferred to leave their illegal and immoral activities thinly masked. Roger Ebert wrote further,” With their Western attire and equipment, they stuck out as conspicuously as the police—and at times were suspected of working for them.” Briski stated,” I was really very scared all the time. Violence and fights could erupt at any time. I could have been beaten up, had my cameras smashed, been arrested—even killed—at any one moment.”

So when Ross Kauffman joined her, things became moderately “safer”. While watching that pair working with those eight children, exercising as much control as they could muster, I felt like I was seeing a mini-version of SCHINDLER’S LIST. Thousands of children were being chewed up and assimilated by the dark demon of Brotheldom—and they could only reach out to so few. Briski began shooting the film in 2000. Kauffman joined her in 2001. They completed shooting it in 2002, and then they edited it for a year. Kaufman, at first, did not want to edit his own film. He didn’t feel he could be objective enough. They had shot 170 hours of film. They hired the very experienced Nancy Baker, from Streetwise, to edit the film. She had been cutting it for seven months when Kauffman decided that he had to put his own hands on the movie as well. So then they worked together editing [it was hard to tell who was assisting whom] for four more months. They managed to trim the film down to a slim 85 minutes.

As a fitting tribute to this film and these filmmakers, when HBO/Cinemax Think Films viewed an advance cut, they bought the release options immediately. So actually, the film was sold before it was ever seen. This relieved a lot of stress for Briski and Kauffman. They had maxed all of their personal credit cards while filming—sending out sheaves of applications for grants. But very soon, after the editing was complete, and the musical score was added, the film began winning awards. Ross McDowell scored all of the original music, in his scoring debut. Finally the grant money began to roll in. The Sundance Institute gave her some cash. So did the Jerome Foundation, and the New York Council for the Arts. She was given a nice donation from Annie Lebowitz, a well-known photographer. She was given a George Soros Open Society Institute Fellowship. Accolades began to pile up. When it screened at Sundance in 2004, it won the Audience Award. They packed their bags and made the festival circuit. Briski won first prize at the World Press Foundation Competition. The New York Film Critics, the Golden Globes, and the National Board of Review honored it.

At one point a journalist asked them,

“ How was it going from the environment in Calcutta to something like Sundance?”

Kauffman replied,” From one whore house to the other!”

Such candor is rare from a filmmaker promoting his movie. I suppose since this was his first financial and critical success, he felt no compulsory obligation to smooze. Well, now, his lips will be sealed for a time, because the film won the big dog, the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2004. So for a while, the pair will be “bankable”, and hopefully whatever their next venture, the funding will not be so difficult to snare. It has been reported that they plan on engraving all eight children’s names on their golden statues—what a great tribute to the children.

I must admit, though, after watching the film I had a few moments of despair to deal with. After witnessing Zana Briski working her heart out to help those eight children, fighting the blatant ignorance of the parents,

[Some of the kids were beaten for attending the photography workshops—but they continued to come regardless.], fighting the Indian bureaucracy that managed to stonewall her every step of the way, making her almost crazy when she tried to get a passport for Avijit [Who was picked to represent his country of India at an International Exhibition of Children’s Photography held at Amsterdam.], pulling her hair out over funding, living on nothing but the risky promise of plastic, with no health insurance, no wages and no concrete prospects—only to have the lights come up on what I felt was a “partial” success—was very difficult for me to swallow. By the end credits I felt that raw human nature, cultural barriers, ignorance, and prejudice—had all combined to poke huge holes in the shaky raft of hope that she had so lovingly constructed for those children.

She had managed to place five of the children, three of the girls and two of the boys, in a fine boarding school. In the epilogue, though, we found that only two of the kids stayed in school—one boy and one girl. Some had removed themselves. Others were forced to leave because of their parents. My wife and I were visibly saddened by the reality that was depicted—that after all was said and done, the majority of the children were sucked back into the cavernous tumor of the brothels.

Even after the great success of this film on the International stage—in India there were many critics of it. One very vocal group was the Samanway Committee, chaired by Dunbar Mahila, who supposedly “looks after the welfare of the Sonagachi sex workers.” They were concerned that Zana Briski,” May have exploited the lives of common sex workers for her own benefit.” I don’t think anything could have been further from the truth. Briski had traveled to India, as a photojournalist, on assignment to record the lives of women prostitutes in Sonagachi—one of the most violent red light districts on the planet. But when she was stopped dead in her endeavor, she had already become enthralled with the prodigy of prostitution—the children. She claimed that she never set out to do a film. It just materialized out of her situation.

Roger Ebert wrote further, “ In Sonagachi, the red light district has existed for centuries. [Implying that it is inevitable and self-perpetuating, as eternal as religion and disease.] It will continue to exist. At the close of the film, we as viewers were not offered a hopeful scenario for the future of those children. It seemed that Briski’s well-meaning gestures, teaching, manipulation, and plans all turned out to be insignificant, that the red light horror would continue unaffected and unabated. It was as if she had held up a six inch wide umbrella during a torrential downpour, and attempted to keep eight people dry with it—or she has placed a half dozen thin boards across the raging current of an swollen river, and was endeavoring to alter its course.

Ebert made an existential reference in his review. “ There is a scene in Luis Bunuel’s VIRIDIANA (1961), where a man is upset by seeing a dog tied to a wagon, being dragged along the street because it can’t keep up. The man buys the dog in order to free it—but he fails to notice at that very moment, in the background, there is another wagon passing, dragging another dog.” But to my amazement, and pleasant surprise, Briski and Kauffman did not walk away from those eight children once the film was in the can in 2002. Rather they deepened their commitment to them.

While teaching the photographic workshop classes, they had persuaded Shahidul Alam, a photographer from Bangladesh, and Robert Pledge, a photographer from “Constant Images”, to teach some of the classes. Looking at the photographs taken by the children, they found that many of them were astonishingly good. Through Robert Pledge, Briski was able to set up an exhibition and auction at Southeby’s. Soon the childrens pictures toured much of the world, showing up at various exhibitions. Briski rose in excess of $100,000.00 with the sale of some of those photos, and every cent of that was earmarked to help with the children’s education. In 2004, Amnesty International did their entire calendar utilizing the children’s photographs.

They went that extra mile then, and set up a website called KIDS WITH CAMERAS. One can get to it by clicking on www.kids-with-cameras.org. They present information about the film, about the children, and about the primary mission of the new group—to set up schools for the children. They are building a school currently in Calcutta that is supposed to be open next year. The public is invited to donate funds and gather up their tax deductions. In addition, the “Kids with Cameras” phenomenon will be expanded to Haiti, Cairo, and Jerusalem.

So miraculously, against all odds, Zana Briski has managed to empower these children—has assisted them in developing better self-images, has manipulated them into schools and facilitated their educations. The kids call her Zana Auntie. She is Avijit’s godmother. She has been so busy, and so committed to this project that she hasn’t snapped a single photograph in three years. She and Ross keep tabs on the children. Most of the kids have access to computers, so they email each other. As it turned out, none of them have become prostitutes—according to Kauffman. Hope, dignity, and the appreciation of beauty—that is what has become self-perpetuating and self-sustaining. Yes, they have discovered, there is a kind of beauty even in crumbling buildings, the sweat of whores, and the steaming piles of rat raisins. So Roger Ebert can take heart. I certainly have. The idealist in me has been reawakened after a long slumber. Two people, or just one person, can make a difference even in the darkest corner of this crazy world.

I gave this movie a rating of 5 stars
Glenn A. Buttkus (2005)