Escape From Oppression

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005

ALL TOO often, we see poverty and hopelessness, and simply register them as head-shaking abstracts. Those little girls with runny noses or those hunched-over souls in soup kitchen lines aren't real people somehow. They're part of a tableau of suffering. We subconsciously congratulate ourselves for even noticing.

"Born Into Brothels" doesn't just bring you to the edge of the hopeless zone, it takes you right into its homes where the children play. The place is Sonagachi, Calcutta's red light district, where the children of prostitutes essentially see two types of adults: their mothers and a steady stream of male strangers, all with the same dehumanizing intentions.

British photographer Zana Briski originally went to Sonagachi to document the lives of its women. But after meeting and quickly befriending their children, she altered her plans. She not only made a film about the kids, she tried to give them a future.

"Born Into Brothels," which Briski directed with Ross Kauffman, is about her attempts to change the perspectives of eight children -- literally and figuratively -- through photography workshops. As these boys and girls, who range in age from 10 to 14, learn how to frame pictures, load film and accept Briski's critiques, they also start to see their world differently. Suddenly, there are alternatives to the very real probability that the girls will "join the line" of prostitutes, and the boys will resort to begging or dealing drugs.

Like most children, Briski's charges run the gamut from sweet and precocious to deeply reserved. Most prominent is the mischievous and talented Avigit, a chubby-cheeked preteen who composes amazingly elegant photographs. We also meet Puja, a charming scamp who thinks nothing of taking candid portraits of people in the streets; this doesn't sit well with the residents or the customers passing through. And there is also the reserved, older Suchitra who, at 14, is a prime candidate to join the line.

Offering opportunity isn't enough. Briski faces a tyranny of hopelessness. Among the children's wildly diverse guardians, including hookers and fathers who think nothing of selling their daughters into the profession, there is the feeling that no one leaves this dystopia.

It's depressing at times to see how hard Briski has to fight for their continued support, particularly when she seeks approval to let the children spend long periods away in a boarding school, where they can get a better education. Many of these adults simply see their children's absence as the loss of a useful pair of hands or even household income. And when Avijit is invited to Amsterdam to participate in a photographic exhibition held by the World Press Photo Foundation, Briski encounters the Dickensian nightmare of trying to get a passport from local authorities.

Yet Briski never loses her soft-spoken determination, whether she's teaching the children about composition and the importance of using a flashbulb at night, or patiently listening to a bureaucrat seemingly bent on preventing anyone getting through his unwieldy system. By this time, we have long realized this is no longer a movie about photographic workshops. It's about Briski's moral involvement in her subjects' lives. Heroism can come in subtle forms. This is one of them.

BORN INTO BROTHELS (Unrated, 85 minutes) -- Contains obscenity and footage of dire conditions. In Bengali and English with subtitles. At Landmark's E Street Cinema.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company