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Courtesy of Red Light Films

Born into Brothels

Award-winning documentary exposes the tribulations of childhood in Calcutta

By Kevin Spurgaitis

Born into Brothels
Directed by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. But it holds even more value for dispossessed kids with no birthright.

The 2005 Academy Award winner for best documentary feature, Born into Brothels chronicles the spiralling journey of children born into a lower caste — sometimes to drug-addicted and prostitute parents — in Calcutta’s red-light district. Their exit from squalor materializes through director Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer who gives them point-and-shoot cameras and teaches how to take pictures. By encouraging the children to snap photos at places like the Calcutta Beach and Marble Palace Zoo, she is able to show them how to dream outside their poverty-stricken neighbourhoods.

It’s during this artful process that Briski decides to take on another mammoth task: getting her female pupils out of the brothels and into boarding schools. But the endeavour, which involves navigating what she labels India’s “labyrinthine bureaucracy,” proves frustrating.

After a series of emotional highs and lows, the children’s photos are finally exhibited in a New York art show, which raises their profile and enough money for their education in Calcutta. Inspired, Brinski goes on to start up Kids with Cameras, which further subsidizes the lives of those shown in the film.

Absent of sentimentality, Born into Brothels exposes a global underbelly characterized by female infanticide, dowry deaths and widowhood. But through the novices’ own photography, the directors encapsulate the surprising beauty of one of India’s most impoverished underclasses. They show that hope can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

Can't find this DVD at your local video store? Try ordering it online at www.chapters.indigo.ca or at www.hmv.ca.
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