Saturday, March 05, 2005

Born Into Brothels: Ethical Questions, and Links

We finally saw Born Into Brothels last night. The documentary won an Oscar last week, but it will never be shown in India, apparently to protect the identities of the mothers of the children in the film.

There have been some complaints about the film's negativity, but I think it's fair to dismiss those. Though the filmmakers are clearly making Born Into Brothels with an ethical and humanitarian goal in mind (i.e., help keep these kids out of the life of prostitution and crime that seems to be their fate), it's not a protest film or an "exploitation" film. These are the children of prostitutes, living in a notorious neighborhood in Calcutta, but remarkably, there are no scenes of violence against them or explicit sexuality around them in the film. (There is one scene with implied violence, which also features a string of the most aggressive Bengali curse-words imaginable, but it only lasts a few seconds). Instead, the film focuses on the mundane aspects of their lives, and of course on photography -- which is often quietly remarkable (as the above image shows).

One of the interpreters Briski worked with has also complained about the film:

Meanwhile, the documentary has had its share of controversies. It has "ethical and stylistic" problems, says Partha Banerjee, interpreter between the filmmakers and the children. He has reportedly written to the Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences, complaining that the children's lives had worsened. Authorities at Sabera Foundation's home, where some of the children live, said other kids didn't know about their Sonagachhi connection. Now, the award has brought the kids into global prominence.(link)

The fact that the lives of some of the children worsened doesn't surprise me. Briski is quite clear that her goal isn't to extract the kids, or save them at any cost. Rather, she wants to help them help themselves, without severing them from their families or their surroundings. With that goal and that methodology, it's virtually inevitable that there will be some failures.

One can also justify the film along a "greatest good" argument. Some good will come from the money that the sale of the children's photographs has presumably raised, as well as from the revenue from the film, and even from funds sent in by viewers of the film who see it and want to help. Briski has already started a school. It's possible that the lives of many more kids than just these seven or eight will be helped by what she started.

And finally, many of the American reviewers had issues with the film's tone. Here I have to concede they have a point. Briski tries hard to ensure that this isn't a movie about herself (i.e., as a saint), and also not a voyeuristic "look at how miserable these kids are" affair. The result is a film with an approach I haven't seen before. It's original -- and that, more than anything else, is why it probably deserved the Oscar -- but it sometimes seems a little unsure of what it's trying to do.

* * * * *
Some links
A commentor on Tiffinbox posted some additional links about the film, including the site Kids With Cameras, which many other blogs have linked to:

It leaves out, for instance, the work of many other photographers who have introduced young people who have few worldy prospects to a new life by introducing them to photography.

Shahidul Alam and his colleages have worked for eight years with a group of young photographers who call themselves Out of Focus. (link).

Nancy McGirr teaches photography to children who worked in a garbage dump in Guatemala. (link. Also here)

And Zana Briski is doing her best to make her work in Kolkata more than a one-time event. She started Kids With Cameras (link)
to send other photographers to countries around the world to train children to become photographers. Gigi Cohen (whoalso has worked with Child Labor & the Global Village) is currently in Haiti.

And Ms. Musings links to an NPR interview with Briski the day after she won the Oscar.

UPDATE: See Shashwati Talukdar's response to the nasty review in Outlook.


Ms. World said...

Very interesting post! I look forward to seeing the film when I can.

10:42 AM  
Ennis said...

They took down this page, but you can still see the BBC article about the controversy via Google's cache.

11:20 PM  
arnab said...

there has been some discussion of this film and controversy on another subcontinent as well. i haven't seen the film yet myself--will have to wait till it comes to dvd.

3:32 PM  
Anonymous said...

well this was IMHO one of the most dishonest attempts at documentary filmmaking. ms director should have, at least, taken one or two courses in basic ethnographic research methods. that way she could have at least anticipated that these kids' lives would be forever and ever changed for the worse, as she goes around the world reaping the benefits (most of them monetary) while the kids still rot in their homes. very sickening attempt, missionary-style cheap morality that was... just my two cents. congrats on your blog!

12:56 PM  
Davester said...

Uh if you read the BBC article you'll learn that 100% of the kid's photographs go towards their education. So do your research before commenting.

2:25 AM  

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