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Film: Born Into Brothels

Ross Kauffman
Thursday, February 17, 2005; 1:00 PM

In the Academy Award-nominated documentary "Born Into Brothels," filmmaker Zana Briski brings photography classes to the red light district in Calcutta. Her goal: To provide hope to the children of prostitutes living in the troubled region of Sonagachi.

Ross Kauffman, who co-directed "Brothels" with Briski, was online Thursday, Feb. 17 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the film and how it feels to be a first-time Oscar nominee.

"Born Into Brothels" opens in Washington on Friday, Feb. 18.

A transcript follows.

Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.


Rockville, Md.: Prior to the Academy Awards what film festivals did your film receive recognition at that has resulted in the fair amount of attention it has received. Was it hard to gain acceptance to those festivals?

Ross Kauffman: Prior to the Academy Awards nomination, we were accepted into over 30 film festivals and we've received over 25 film festival awards. All of the awards are listed on our Web site (www.bornintobrothels.com). It was difficult to get into Sundance and some of the earlier festivals that year (2004) but once we won the audience award at Sundance, festivals started inviting us to screen our film so it became a lot easier then.


washingtonpost.com: The discussion will now resume. Thank you for your patience.


Arlington, Va.: Hello Ross, I was lucky enough to be at the screening last night at the Freer/Sackler. Great, great film. At points in the film, you did such an amazing job of capturing the despair of their situation. I was so thrilled to hear that the children are all doing so well. My question is about the money that the children are recieving as a result of selling their photographs. Without going into too much detail, how confident are you that their money will be protected and used for productive means? I ask this in the context of your comment last night about the fact that there are so many forces in the brothels exploiting the women and children.

Ross Kauffman: Hi and thanks for your question. We are very careful about the money we receive on the kids' behalf. It goes into an account and we either pay the schools directly, or we have a liaison paying the individual computer and English classes. We have told the kids that they have this money set aside for their education. If they choose education, they will be able to go all the way through to University.


Gaithersburg, Md.: How did you feel in the entire process of making this film from inception to nomination?
What can we do as human beings that have not lived and gone through such unimaginable cruelty of life?

Ross Kauffman: Documentaries like this are difficult to make. We spent 3 1/2 years working alone on this project with limited funding at best. But what kept us going throughout was the kids. We love them and are committed to them. I am sure we will be a part of their lives for many years to come. I just received a text message from Puja today. She called me a 'monkey' and then told me 'I love you'. That is what keeps me going.
As for what we can do as human beings..., I think the most important thing is to keep an open heart and know that there other people all over the world just like us that are not as fortunate as us, and help in whatever way is possible.


Washington, D.C.: What has happened to the children since your filming in terms of their daily life: economics, education and results of their photographic endeavors? What has disappointed you, as well as heartened you?

Ross Kauffman: We just returned from Calcutta two weeks ago. None of the kids are in the line and they are all doing well.
Here is the breakdown:
Through the sales of their photography, the kids have earned over $100,000 which goes directly towards their education. If they choose education, they have no financial worries and can go as far as they are able.
Kochi, Tapasi and Mamuni are now very happy and doing wonderfully at Sabera, a home for girls in the south of Calcutta. Kochi is now fluent in English and she loves living there and having the opportunity to learn.
Avijit is living at Futurehope and is also doing very well. He is going to one of the best schools in Calcutta.
While in Calcutta 2 weeks ago we enrolled Manik in Futurehope. He will start living there in March and we could not be happier about it. We are also so grateful to Futurehope for taking him.
Gour, Puja and Suchitra are all taking computer and English classes.
Shanti is the only child that I fear will not take the steps to better her situation. She has had two chances to go to Sabera, but each time she had a very difficult time leaving home and entering a situation where she did not get as much attention as she needs. She has left Sabera twice. This makes me sad, but knowing Shanti, I can understand it. When we go back in April, we will try again with her.
But with that said, I am so proud of the kids. They are incredible.
Thanks for asking!


Washington, D.C.: Ross, I saw the movie last night at the Freer and thoroughly enjoyed it -- kudos to you. I had to leave before the Q&A was finished, so I never got to ask my question; namely, what did the other kids in the red light district think of your group and their cameras? Were they jealous, curious, oblivious? How many kids did you have to turn away from your class?

Ross Kauffman: Hi. Sorry you had to leave early!
As for the other kids, they were not particularly jealous, but some of the mothers were. Zana was actually teaching two classes for a while, but the second class was difficult because their father's were in the local mafia and made things difficult for her to run the photo class like she wanted. In the end, she had to drop that class. But we are going to start a school in Calcutta, concentrating on leadership and the arts, and we hope to help some of the other kids that couldn't take the photo class.


Washington, D.C.: Where can we see the film locally (D.C. area)? Any special events with commentary, etc...?

Ross Kauffman: Hi,
We had a special screening last night at the Freer Sackler Gallery. It was incredible and unfortunately we had to turn away about 100 people. I hate turning away people and I usually break all the fire codes by bringing in too many, but this time, I couldn't!
In any case, you can see the film at the E Street Cinema. I think it will be playing there for a week or two.


San Francisco, Calif.: I grew up in Calcutta and really appreciated your sensitive and courageous movie ... How can I help your work?

Ross Kauffman: Thank you so much. It means a great deal to me when people from Calcutta appreciate the film and the work we are trying to do. I think the best way to help is to spread the word about the work and the film. Of course we are always looking for good people to help us out in Calcutta, so if you know people who would be helpful in helping us get our school off the ground...
So thanks very much.


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