Stevie  (2002)

“Ain’t No Cure.” 


Born into Brothels (2004) 

“Gold in the Compost” 


Both of the documentaries, Stevie by Steve James of Academy Award winning Hoop Dreams (1994) and Born into Brothels (2004) Zana Briski’s recent Oscar winner (February 27, 2005), are able to be classed together as an unusual docu-genre in which the filmmakers insert themselves centrally into the very purpose and motive of their films.  In other words, though the filmmakers chose behind-the-scenes roles originally, maintaining as much objectivity as one could devise, the exigencies of filming their subjects forced them to move to the foreground and take an intrusive agent role to join their subjects on screen.  In the former, Steve James became the interlocutor with his subjects and the part-time companion of Stevie, the young man whose life-in-crisis was the main topic of the documentary.  He even introduced his wife as a counselor to consider Stevie’s psychological condition and possible treatments.  In the latter film, Zana Briskie had intended to document life in the forbidden Sonagachi red-light district of Calcutta as part of her photojournalist career, but when she found her underclass subjects unwilling to risk exposure and to exhibit openly their seamy lives of prostitution, she found the children of Sonagachi to be willing and curious subjects.  Therefore, after many misspent weeks establishing her role, she intruded benevolently into the lives of the children of the brothels and motivated them to learn from her about photographic art.  She essentially became the children’s art teacher and mentor, and then, after discovering their artistic talents, their agent to help arrange outside schooling and other possible avenues of escape from underclass misery so that they might choose in time to better their lives themselves.  


        Stevie is a heart-rending story of a loveless child, Steven Fielding, born into a trailer-trash family in Southern Illinois, knocked from pillar to post in foster families until in early adolescence he found himself in reformatories because of his incorrigible, rebellious behavior, later in county jails for drunkenness and stupid petty crimes.  Filmmaker James had acted as a “Big Brother” to Stevie for a short time during his college years in the mid-1980s and eventually left Illinois to start his career as a filmmaker.  Following a series of short films, he hit the big time with Hoop Dreams; then after some interval James thought back on the fate of his former “Little Brother,” who by age 21 appeared a half-wit kid, unkempt, bespectacled in moon-shaped goggles, living with his impassive grandmother.  The meeting  between filmmaker and subject was lukewarm, but the project was presumably conceived as a biography of a boy who went wrong, spoiled by family, child services, foster homes, and eventually the law.  A pathetic case study, at best.


        In making documentaries, spontaneity is anticipated, but as with best laid schemes o’ mice and men, James found himself in a fix.  When he returned in the late 1990s to continue the filming, Stevie had committed a crime of molesting an 8-year-old child and at that point the story took on a present reality of a life of pathos and, following Stevie’s confession, a predictable misery.  Bringing his wife as counselor into the documentary, James began to embroil his own life into the circumstances and course of Stevie’s trials and tribulations: his courtship with a devoted, loving, girlish companion named Tonya; a hokey Pentecostal church baptism; court hearings and trial; and eventually his court appearances and departure to the big house.


        In the Tacoma Film Club’s group discussion, the element of James intrusion into the changing course of Stevie’s life offended or disturbed some viewers who questioned the ethics; they expressed dismay at James’s negligence over ethical boundary crossing.  [Cf. commentary by Ron Boothe in his commentary about the Stevie documentary]  Not only had the would-be objective documentarian become subjectively involved in his own film, he began to act in ways that influenced, if not directed, the actions and behavior of Stevie.  This intrusiveness did not detract from this viewer’s interest in Stevie’s story, probably because I’m not a psychologist by profession nor ethicist by nature.  However, James did find himself in a predicament at one point if he chose to continue filming the young man’s life.  So much had been revealed to the filmmaker, which may have been a record of witness evidence, that James was treading a dubious path   Sometimes, by crossing boundaries, one gets caught in a web of intrigue from which it is very difficult to extricate oneself, and, as I perceive it, such is the situation the well-meaning James found himself in with the Stevie project.  Mind you, there is no such thing as impartiality in a documentary film--myth, fiction, illusion, discreet imagery and suggestive music, among other elements, are creatively edited into the final production of this genre of film. This did not mean James had to publicize the experience in depicting Stevie as the wayward, backwoods criminal idiot.  Nevertheless, for whatever personal and professional reasons, James persisted with his project.    


        Tonya, Stevie’s girlfriend, appeared in a number of scenes, speaking openly and frankly of her doubts about Stevie’s nature, fully aware he had a dark side, especially after drinking.  She was the expressive, virtuous character in a company of equivocating, impassive folk who surrounded Stevie.  Perhaps she was playing the role of nurturing angel, an empowering state to act out, attempting to reform the miscreant boyfriend.  Nevertheless, her loyalty was admirable in the face of the insurmountable difficulties confronting the stupidly cocky Stevie, who frequently emitted the bigoted machismo of an uneducated country bumpkin.  In a social milieu where traditional patriarchal values stand strong, she naturally had only a marginal affect on Stevie’s life choices.  His choice of associates, besides occasional locals at the bars, turned out to be ex-con white supremacist organizers in need of new members.  This was a particularly telling moment of Stevie’s bad judgment in peer relations. A social scene with a religious community revealed a common behavior of someone desperate for acquiring a better nature.  For the effect of partial redemption and good character before the courts, Stevie subjected himself to ritual conversion with leaders of a Pentecostal church who, in spite of their obvious coaching, hoped to show on film the efficacy of glossolalia and baptism in reforming a sick soul.  Fortunately Stevie behaved true to his own nature and did not do speak in tongues to please his coach.


        Not even Steve James can be excluded from the list of those who felt they could aid in Stevie’s rehabilitation.  One constant motif of thematic interest was the imagined salvation people might provide, or had provided, in supporting a helpless, wayward fellow and by which temporarily their lives might acquire, or had acquired, a benevolent purpose.   It’s a rare and generous soul who sticks with a miscreant adoptee when the selfless efforts of attention, help and kindness fail to change aberrant behavior.   From all the cast of characters connected at one time or another with Stevie, perhaps Tonya had something of this unusual selflessness and indomitable love.


        The taboo nature of Stevie’s sexual crime predictably brought calamity onto the stubborn man, who refused to admit his guilt, even though he had initially confessed in writing close to the time of his arrest.  Eventually, Stevie’s fate is so wretched that even his mother, never having pretended to be a tender soul, separated herself at last from her selfish hard-heartedness to hug the confused young man and express “I love you” on the eve of his departure to prison.  Even here, how much Steve James’s camera had forced her to show compassion was a debatable point at the film’s conclusion, just as it had occurred to me several other times throughout the filming that the camera had provoked as much as it merely captured events.


        In contrast to the distressingly dark fate of Stevie’s life, the fates of the young, energetic children of Born into Brothels are tinged with hope.  Zana Briski found her métier both as filmmaker and teacher of the arts in attracting the juveniles to her project, and yet this happy accident did not come about without her own trials and tribulations.  Even before she found the focus of her film, the experiments in filming the back alleys of Sonagachi allowed her to see the accidental beauty in the slums inhabited by the prostitute classes.  Had she investigated oriental Istanbul of the Old Topkapi coffee houses, the tawdry  theatrical nightlife of Bollywoodish MumBai, the jump-up of Kingston’s Jamaican hoi-polloi at Carnival time, or the steamy all-night bacchanalia of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras, there would have been sight and sound of such rich beauty in the midst of great cities’ decay or decadent festivals that the artistic aesthete would have been energized by such onslaughts upon the senses.  Films set in vibrant exotic settings, e.g. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Monsoon Wedding (2002) cannot fail to please the moviegoer on the esthetic level alone.


        In the Sonagachi backstreets Briski had sitar music of trance and transport at her disposal in Calcutta;  original music for her film was later scored by newcomer, Ross McDowell.  For visual splendor, sweating, cracked walls in doorways and along alleys exhibited expansive plaster tapestries, exotic colorations of once brilliant paints, now faded in luxurious decadence for a photographer’s eye.  Elsewhere multicolored fabric textures draped over doorways and as dividers in the cluttered houses of the prostitutes could not fail to stimulate the viewers’ rods and cones through their vivid hues and absurd juxtapositions of filth and finery.  


        Likewise, the children with simple 35mm cameras had all the local murky splendor to capture at every turn in the caverns and labyrinths of their neighborhood.  The eight children who were consistent enthusiasts, even early on in their experiments, were surprising Briski with their natural eye for color and composition.  With care, she taught them how to improve their compositions, to notice lighting contrasts and angles of perception, etc. The results of many shoots, when the proofs were presented for the video camera, were striking portraits and images, many of the children themselves, each one taking shots of another, and cultural figures and images of the street life.  I thought: “How could a child, a rank amateur photographer, choose to depict a girl in a turquoise dress against a faded turquoise stuccoed wall?  A snapshot of accidental brilliance?”  Perhaps not.  Briski had after all been coaching in her own way to help the children to “see” photographically before an audience had a chance to see their work.  The uplifting brightness of the children’s faces and eyes as they poured themselves into the photographic adventure was heartwarming.  Through imaginative pursuits their minds and emotions were being distracted from the sordid banality of their downtrodden existence.  At some points the children were taken in taxis for excursions; these adventures beyond their encumbered Sonagachi mazes seemed to move them to open their eyes very wide.   A trip to the ocean was a vital, entertaining segment of this documentary.  During this liberating vacation of a lifetime, the privileged gang of children showed themselves as photogenically exhibitionistic -- joyfully dancing, prancing, acting out silly walks in their playtime -- as they were skillful photographers of one another playing madly and laughing in exhilaration.  Lost childhood innocence did not seem so much to have returned to them but to rather to have shown up newly elicited as they splashed and paddled in the sea and showed the finds they beachcombed along the tideline.    


        Not all was joy and frolic for the children in the course of filming, for their lives were intended to follow the patterns of their prostitute families.  It was to thwart this inevitable future that Briski sought help for the children, to arrange schooling for them perhaps to raise their consciousness for other visions of  possibilities.  It was in these trials with charity groups--one with a pessimistic Catholic mother superior--that the obstacles to escape were noticeably thrown up.  In a culture of caste and gross separation of the haves and have-nots, how difficult even the meanest change of status and position must be.   One impasse was revealed in the archaic bureaucracy of the city where children’s identification papers were sought.  The bureaus looked like Fagin’s warehouse in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a dreadful confusion of shelving packed with brown paper rolls tied up in frayed string, purportedly the glutted memory banks of filed official papers.  Secretaries typed on 50-year-old typewriters, while head-shaking officials looked


with despair for any solution to Briski’s request for identification papers to be drawn up.  In time some placements in schools did become possible, but the parents and family members of the children never seemed amenable to such changes, unhappy about losing their future incomes which the their children most represented for them.  Much film time was compressed in these endeavors to seek papers and school appointments, which would have been interesting in themselves as documentary records in another film.  In our technological age we are concerned about having our identities stolen for illicit purposes; in the low-tech Sonagachi world, it’s a near impossibility to someone to find or procure an identity for legitimate purposes.


        The pursuit of identity was especially dismaying in the search for a passport for Avijit, an intelligent young boy with the morose psychology of an old man.  Avijit not only displayed remarkable talent as an artist practiced in painting and design, but one who, through the agency and application of Briski and Ross Kauffmann, partner with and assistant to Briski, had become the recipient of a prize as India’s representative in an international photographic exhibition in Amsterdam. Though there is no telling what graft and other persuasions had to be administered to allow the boy to travel with new-minted official papers, thanks to Briski’s and Kauffman’s largesse, the depressed, stoic boy, Avajit, made his way to the European city that must have been like Shangri-La.  He had expressed some realistic pessimism about going on the journey, knowing how his life would improve only against severe resistance.  After his experience in Amsterdam, the realization he would be returning to the Sonagachi salt mines was a sad image for this viewer to watch.  One wondered if this was truly the turning point in Avajit’s life or just a lucky moment soon to be stifled by daily realities he had to endure.


        At film’s end, the success of the children’s opportunities in schooling and the arts was cataloged and with dismay most viewers sighed to learn that most of the children had returned to Sonagachi; one or two were still placed in their schools.  It was sometime later (from Glenn Buttkus) that I learned happily that the report of the film’s sad final message had changed to good fortune. Following the rounds of film festival awards, funds and endowments that had accrued from the successful reception of Born into Brothels were put back into charitable trusts to help the talented children whom Briski had taught and to whom she was indebted for their cooperation and willing devotion to her project.

[N.B. The commentary of Glenn Buttkus on Born into Brothels explains more about the humanitarian efforts resulting from the film’s success.  Furthermore, his review gives complete data about filmographic data far beyond that which I offer in my commentary.  Please consult his reviews for an encyclopedic expression on this and other films viewed by the TFC.]         


        Back in the 1990s a friend of mine sent a postcard after his train journey to Agra from New Delhi, on his way to tour the gemlike brilliance of the Taj Mahal.  He wrote of the passage through the capital city’s sewer of humanity.  The latter pejorative expression may have been accurately descriptive through his senses for the impoverished masses, but I, in the comfort of my home, was offended and thought somewhat less of him for his slur.  Nevertheless, it encouraged me to think about the contrasts of beauty and poverty, quite like those that appear in Zana Briski’s documentary, and in time I wrote a poem about the paradox of useless beauty in an imaginary Calcutta scene.        





In the street waters 

The refuse gutters near the Kaligat 

A queer pair of blue legs lie limp, 

Damp, from resting all night 

In the stream of a constant pouring rain 

                             \ \ \ \

        ~ ~ ~ ~  of  a ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                         \ \ \ \

          ~ ~ ~ ~  constant ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                             \ \ \ \

            ~ ~ ~ ~ ~   pouring  ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                                \ \ \ \

                ~ ~ ~ ~  ~ ~    rain   ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

                              ~ ~ ~ ~ \ \ \ ~ ~ ~ ~


Sunrise in heat, 

Sweaty vapors rise from cobbled earth 

Before an endless row of ragged tent-doors 


Behind the veils 

Blue steam bubbles from pans 

Boiling on rickety gas burners. 


In the street,  

Cyclists begin to glide off, dripping, 

Joining the ratcheted traffic stream, 

Driven to labor for pitiful payment. 


Behind the veil, 

Skinny brown children creep forth. 

From curtain corners they peer about. 





On the cobbles, 

A lean, gray dog mopes. 

It scavenges nothing-- 



The purple veil ruffles 

And beautiful eyes leap forth, 

Dark almonds, looking. 

A smooth, curved brow, 

Smoothed back hair, 

Black hair, all in line, 

It shone like silk. 

This sari’d shape, girl-become-mother, 

had made a shelter home of rags, 

Peach-colored sari’d hips. 

No stone in her belly. 


Veil ruffles back, 

As skin wrinkles, a metal tooth glints 

Among enamel-white teeth. 

Drawn-back lips, eyes widening, 

She smiles and grimaces to behold 

Light of a new day. 


In conclusion, one cannot fail to notice the differences of two films as different in mood and effect as Stevie and Born into Brothels.  The moldy provincial world of backwoods America, where opportunity almost comes a-begging, is the setting for a story of depravity and wasted life in the vicissitudes of Steven Fielding’s miserable life.   Steve James set a heavy, depressing story before his viewers with Stevie, not unlike the stories of the inner-city basketball youths in Hoop Dreams, dreams full of potential that became dreams sadly deferred.  He shows us clearly how education is vital for a decent life in both his films I have mentioned. The filmmaker does all right depicting his failed lives.   In Zana Briski’s world, we viewed a double success: her own recognition as an admirable filmmaker and the amazing possibility of transcending depravity if one can teach the educable young mind to find a sticking place to set courage and imagination to.  She showed how hope and art are twinned forces.  Even with the prematurely sorrowful litany Briski’s film announced of the children’s early failures to stay on an upward course out of the red-light district, I sensed that something magical had happened to transform lives forever for the good.   It is with this film of education and promise, not without hard word, straining against almost impossible odds, that we see deferred dreams return to full light.


David Gilmour 

I rate Born into Brothels 4 stars; Stevie 3 stars