'Born Into Brothels': A Shot of Hope

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 18, 2005

In 1998, photographer Zana Briski went to the red-light district of Calcutta to document the lives of the prostitutes who lived and worked there. But she found herself increasingly entranced by the women's children, who in the midst of poverty and neglect were evincing surprising powers of psychological and physical endurance. In a stroke of both generosity and genius, Briski bought 10 point-and-shoot cameras and recruited several of the most spirited children to study photography with her, the eventual goal being that they would then represent, and by extension gain some control over, their troubled lives.

"Born Into Brothels," which has been deservedly nominated for an Oscar this year, is the record of that project. Directed by Briski and Ross Kauffman, it takes viewers not only into the hitherto hidden world of India's sex workers and their families, but into the hearts of eight remarkable children. Ranging in age from 10 to 14, each of these boys and girls reveals extraordinary artistic gifts, as evidenced by the startlingly accomplished photographs they produced.

But even more inspiring -- and distressing, as their stories unfold in the course of the film -- is the unfailing spirit of children whose circumstances are limned by squalor, abuse and apathy and, for the girls, expectation that they will follow in their mothers' footsteps. If "Born Into Brothels" starts out as the simple chronicle of one woman's well-intentioned mission to help out needy kids, it soon turns into a mystery wherein the fate of each child hangs in precarious balance. It's a tribute to the skills of the filmmakers that viewers will be on the edge of their seats waiting to see what the future has in store for these unforgettable youngsters.

By far the most notable of the group is Avijit, who at 12 is already an accomplished artist, and who demonstrates an instinct for creating arresting photographs. Avijit's talents even earn him a slot in a prestigious exhibition of children's work in Amsterdam. But just as compelling as this imaginative and charismatic young man are the quieter members of the group; one of the most memorable photographs in the film is taken by a girl named Suchitra, whose aunt is already pressuring her to join "the line." When Briski goes to desperate lengths to get this shy 14-year-old -- as well as several other promising children -- into schools, the stakes of "Born Into Brothels" are ratcheted up even higher. It's not just the children's self-esteem that's at issue, but their very survival.

Viewers who expect "Born Into Brothels" to be a depressing travelogue through the seedy Third World underbelly should know that the film is filled to bursting with ravishing images, not just those created by the children -- whose work demonstrates real sophistication and artistic flair -- but of the young photographers themselves . When a gallery asks to exhibit their photographs, the youngsters glow with pride and joy and hope. Those feelings are contagious, which makes the postscript of "Born Into Brothels" -- wherein viewers learn a little of what befalls these indomitable young heroes -- all the more heartwarming, heartbreaking and, finally, deeply haunting.

Born Into Brothels (85 minutes, at Landmark E Street) is rated R for strong profanity.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company