Truly Bad Films

Monday, February 20, 2006

Movie Review

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids (2004)

I thought this film was going to be a documentary about the general condition of the children of sex workers in India. The film turned out to be about eight specific children from one red-light district of Calcutta - so it's scope was much narrower than I'd imagined, and much less factual.

Zana Briski is the Director of the film and sometimes its subject. She went to the red-light district of Calcutta to show the lives of female prostitutes, but since their work is illegal, it caused too many complications. Instead, Zana turned to teaching the children of the prostitutes to photograph their destitute world. The result is more an art film than a documentary. The children, all between seven and ten years old, are presented as blossoms of innocence in a sewer of corruption. We're shown their "fathers," (or at least their mother's partners) getting drunk and spending the day smoking hash. We're told about the domestic violence the men who are customers and the men who live there perpetuate. We're shown the knackered, foul-mouthed harpies who birthed the kids verbally abusing them.

I didn't learn much from this film because it's all about telling us how very sad it is that the oldest of these children will be "on the line" in two years or less. I felt manipulated by the long scenes of happy imps teasing each other and laughing. I felt a very edited version of the kids being forced on me. I was too aware that Zana wanted me to think of them as endangered angels. She even included one ham-handed scene where after a happy day at the beach a tiny girl walks alone into an ominously red-lit street at night as she heads for home. I hate that shit!

In a book I read last year by Rita Golden Gelman, (Tales of a Female Nomad) Rita specifically says that she knows it is time to leave a place when she gets the urge to change the lives of the people she visits around the world. I deeply respected Rita's anthropologist's urge not to interfere. But Zana was not like-minded. Westerners like her are big hearted, and they want to solve every problem with New Orlean's style piles of cash. So the last act of this film is all about her trying to raise money to put the kids in a boarding school where they would be away from the bad life.

I'll admit, that sounds good, but, the reality was that the kids were free housekeepers and baby sitters for their mothers. So removing them from the homes created problems at once for the moms. Also, like many people with nothing to look forward to in life, the mothers felt jealous of the kids, and left out of the gravy train. No white people had dropped out of the sky with fancy cameras, trips to Amsterdam and offers of schooling for them! Why should their kids get uppity? So, out of the eight children Zana tried to place, by the end of the film, we're told that only two were still in school.

There is no doubt that these kids were in a bad situation, but kids of protitutes in America don't fare so well either. This film went around the world to show us a situation that we could find on the other side of town. Lots and lots of kids in this world don't have a chance. So, don't annoy me by pretending that these eight have cornered the market on misery, Zana!

The children's photography is well worth seeing if you rent this movie, but the last part, when Zana goes from photography teacher to Savior of the World actually does more to warn people off impulsive good intentions than it does to inspire anybody to follow her example. I don't think that was her point, but it works for me.


At 5:09 PM, Blogger RC said...

Very interesting...I find your review and analysis of the film to be very cold...but I appreciate reading the comments from your perspective.

I think Zana's efforts are very unique and she adds value to their lives, even if she raises no money and even if the kids don't end up in boarding school...I think it is a highly creative way to make an impact. I think more people should use their abilities they already have and use them to have a positive effect...whether that's there next door neighbor or someone in another country.

--RC of

At 9:14 AM, Blogger Chai-rista said...

Hey RC:
Maybe you just like being manipulated by sentimental claptrap more than me. And there's nothing wrong with that.

I never said the kids weren't adorable, or that I thought badly of Zana teaching them photography. But the children were presented in a one-dimensional way. Almost without exception they were portrayed as sage little angels and that is simply NOT reality.

Therefore, it's an art film - not a documentary. I would have preferred a documentary, in this case. If I wanted Cute Overload I would have gone here:


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