“Born into Brothels” Controversy

Against the Current, No. 117, July/August 2005

Frann Michel

“BORN INTO BROTHELS” won this year’s Academy Award for best documentary. Directed by British photojournalist Zana Briski and U.S. film editor Ross Kauffman, the film follows Briski’s project of teaching photography to a group of children who live in Sonagachi — Calcutta, India’s red-light district — as well as Briski’s efforts to get these children of sex workers admitted into boarding schools.

“Born Into Brothels” has been rightly praised for its stunning visuals, for the heartwarming charm of the children, for its presentation of the saving powers of art and creativity, and for the small but uplifting triumphs of Briski’s outreach work. Moreover, the filmmakers’ interest in returning profits to the Sonagachi community is a commendable attempt to avoid some of the dangers of exploitation attendant on such documentary projects.

On the other hand, the film has also been criticized on several counts. Despite the filmmakers’ willingness to give back to the community they document, critics assert that they succumb to some of the failings typical of documentaries and other research projects by outsiders.

This is an especially acute issue when, as so often, the outsiders are more privileged in their access to resources — the wealthy researching the lives of the poor, westerners researching the lives of those in the developing world. [Editors’ Note: We welcome comment from others who have seen the film.]

The Stories

In alternately vivid and grainy images, “Born Into Brothels” shows us the children — the girls Suchitra, Tapasi, Shanti, Puja and Kochi, and the boys Gour, Manik and Avijit — as they take time away from their schoolwork and chores to photograph their world and to critique their own and each other’s photos.

We see their interactions with family members as well as some of their photographs and critique sessions. We see interviews with the children as they talk about each other and about their own lives and hopes for the future. We see them accompany Briski on their first trips to the ocean and the zoo, and we see atmospheric and sometimes disorienting footage of the Sonagachi area.

Some of the children are quite talented — we learn that one of Suchitra’s photos is featured on the cover of an Amnesty International calendar, and we follow Avijit when he is invited by the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam to be part of their Children’s Jury in 2002.

The children’s work has been auctioned at Sotheby’s, and is featured in a book documenting the project as well.  Proceeds from these ventures are returned to the children’s community though the Kids With Cameras foundation, which Briski set up to support similar projects around the world. A current Kids with Cameras project is developing an arts school for the children of the Sonagachi area.

We also see some of Briski’s battles with Indian bureaucracy — getting Avijit’s passport for the trip to the Netherlands, negotiating with parents and school officials for the children’s enrollment in boarding schools. The coda to the film records their status a year after filming: one of the children has been taken from the boarding school by his father, another has chosen to return home.

Escape vs. Empowerment

“Born Into Brothels” might seem to suggest that the residents of Sonagachi are without resources or collective organization, and that escape from the neighborhood is the only possibility for saving the children. In the film, Briski even describes the children as “doomed” in their home environment.

In fact, both Sonagachi residents and other Indians have worked hard not only to help but also to empower those in the district. Partha Banerjee, who worked as a translator on the film, chiefly during post- production, has noted publicly that “Born Into Brothels” fails to inform viewers that the Sonagachi district has benefitted from years of activism by sex workers themselves as well as by local social workers, medical practitioners and other activists.

For instance, the sex workers and their allies have set up financial institutions, health clinics, sex education schools, and blood banks in the district, and the HIV rate among sex workers in Sonagachi is only 5% instead of 80% as in other areas like Mumbai.

Journalist Sabyasachi Bandopadhyay, writing in Indian Express, notes that Indian activists including film director Gautam Ghosh, novelist Samaresh Majumder, bureaucrat Nitin Ganguly and University professor Mani Nag have helped set up workshops, schools, clinics, and day-care centers in Sonagachi.

In addition, much work has been done by the Durbar Women’s Coordination Committee, an umbrella organization of sex workers in West Bengal, which has 65,000 members. Journalist Seema Sirohi, writing for Outlook India, notes that some members of the Durbar Committee have complained about feeling “used” by Briski’s work, and that others have questioned whether the filmmakers obtained legal permissions from the sex workers involved in the film.

Those with access to the resources of dominant cultures have opportunities unavailable to others: the project gives the children their first opportunity to explore photography and gives Avijit the chance to travel abroad, and the film brings wider attention to the Sonagachi area. But to the extent that the film implies that Briski worked alone, without the assistance of local activists, it overestimates the powers of the crusading individual.

Moreover, the film’s emphasis on “good” — that is, boarding school — education exacerbates its focus on individual rather than communal solutions. Even if all eight of the children profiled in the film had been “rescued” by such education, the lives of other Sonagachi residents would not be improved.

While individual attention may be essential for developing young people’s creative and intellectual abilities, individual solutions can never resolve problems of collective oppression and exploitation. Further, that one of the children chooses to return to her family hints at the cost of such education for the students themselves.

“Born Into Brothels” is a powerful film in its ability to tug at the heartstrings of westerners. But to the extent it suggests that the only solutions lie in individual outsiders rescuing individual children, it presents a misleading story and indeed an unnecessarily despairing picture of possibilities for change.

ATC 117, July-August 2005