Born into Brothels: helpful or degrading
“Born into Brothels by Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski is a interesting and compelling documentary about a group of young children who have been born into the world of prostitution in the red light district of Sonagachi, Calcutta. Zana makes an altruistic attempt through photography to improve the lives of the children, who seem to be living in a place that I would deem completely miserable. The children as young as ten have seemed to accept life as full of sadness and pain, but they are still so full of life and surprisingly talented when given cameras and some tips from Zana.
I really like the way the film and photos give light and insight into the lives of these children. They are constantly struggling with a culture that has been this way for hundreds of years. The struggle seems futile. While the documentary aims to better the lives of these children, I ask myself an important question; does this strategy work? Zana makes attempts at raising money for the children by selling the children’s photographs, fund-raising, and charity. According to the reading from Martha Rosler, charity is an affirmation of ones wealth and defeats the whole purpose of educating the alleged educated on these actual people who need help, because in an ironic sort of way, she says that the probing style of some documentaries imply to the “socially powerful” that the people depicted are helpless and can do nothing for themselves.
While this quest for ascendance of the children is an admirable one on Zana’s part, I wonder how ethically appropriate this film has been done. I do not believe she could have done all this for these children without profiting in some way herself. Undoubtedly, she has. This film is the winner of the 77th annual Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature giving her at least nation wide fame. I am not saying that her efforts aren’t noble, I am just pondering the possibility that she may have exploited these children without bettering their lives a substantial amount, yet she gained quite a bit of recognition. It was the framers of the constitution of the United States who said, “man is inherently greedy’”.
Zana does put a lot of effort into helping the children look at the world with a new trained eye. I cannot deny that her efforts have done nothing for these children, one of the children involved in Zana’s documentary, Avijit, ends up going to Amsterdam to represent India in an exhibition of child photography. He probably would not have been able to go if it were not for Zana’s efforts to acquire all the papers necessary for him to get a passport.
Zana fervently tries to find boarding schools that will take the children of prostitutes, which happens to be more difficult than she first thought. Through her efforts Zana was able to find some boarding schools that would accept a few of the girls and a couple of the boys, although she found them schools, only a couple of the children are in those schools. Most of the children were taken out of the schools by their parents and one or two left of their own accord.
There is much criticism about the affect that this documentary has had on the children and the Indian culture, especially that of the area depicted in the film. After the film was released the interpreter of the film, Partha Banerjee, wrote a dissenting letter of the film to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stating that he has been active with the post part of the film and has visited many of the children after the film. He claims to have found many of the children involved in the project to be in worse conditions than before the project. According to Partha, the despair of the children has only exacerbated because of their belief that being involved in Zana Briski’s camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life. He goes on to say that the sex worker parents of these children believed with the unrestricted access into their secretive lives that their children would be shining in some of the glory that the filmmaker’s are now. Partha also goes on to suggest that the style of the film makes the conjecture that the filmmaker’s themselves were the only people responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to the children or parents.
With this documentary in mind, I really question this process of informative probing into the life of a people beleaguered with problems for profit. Even if the goal is essentially not exploitation for profit, it would seem that can be the outcome. This film has gained Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman fame and some fortune, but what have these children gained. I do agree with helping people of lesser fortune than myself, but at what cost. There must be a better way.