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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.

Comments

For the most part documentaries are created in order to make the public more aware of the problems happening in our country as well as our world. It is, after all, about the director’s motive whether it be to tell the community about certain issues that affect them or perhaps to get as wealth as possible. There are documentarians like James Agee and Walker Evans and others like them who were asked to document the struggles of the south during the Great Depression to tell future of the atrocities that really happened there. Even people today like Al Gore with global warming and Morgan Spurlock with McDonald’s have not only got their point across, but have also been successful in changing the world. Others, however, like Zana Briski may have made their issue clear to the public, but went too far with how a documentary works.
I believe the problem with her documentary as opposed to other ones is that she went to fix the problem herself. All a documentary needs is a subject, why the subject is a problem and maybe how normal civilians like us can stop it. For example, although McDonald’s does not say the super size feature was removed in part by Spurlock’s film, it certainly made people, specifically the CEO of McDonald’s, more health conscious and therefore started the “Eat Smart, Be Active” initiative. Instead of trying to put those kids in boarding schools, Briski should have created or talked about some foundations that give aid to those people.

I can’t imagine living in a place like these kids live in or growing up that way. But the truth is these people get along this way, they don’t sit around and feel sorry for themselves like we feel sorry for them when we see them. I’m just saying that after Zana’s work in Calcutta they aren’t any better, they are actually worse, so it would have been better if she wouldn’t have gone at all. I think that the fact that the children in these pictures and movies are worse off than they were when the documentary was made proves the truth about documentary work and the fact of “rich” people helping the poor people belittles them in a way. That’s why I also agree with what you stated that Martha Rosler said, about how some documentaries portray some people as helpless and can do nothing for themselves. Also the fact that this documentary is the winner of an Academy Award and that Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman have made a lot of fame and some money, put more behind the story. They obtained this from filming people less fortunate then themselves and gained a lot from it. I know they didn’t initially make the film for that reason but as you said it makes you wonder if there was other motive. Zana did try to help the kids by putting them in schools, but that didn’t work that well either, because most of them were taken out or just left themselves. I also completely agree with you about how there must be a better way to help people less fortunate then ourselves.

I must agree with Cory Stark (and apparently disagree with Martha Rosler) about documentaries and their goals. If you really look at most of the documentaries today, they all have a point that they are trying to get across, but few of them accomplish anything towards that point. In fact, if we really look at the issues around the world such as global warming or starvation across the globe, it is not often that we see any resolution in any of these matters in the near future. Issues such as homeless and unemployed citizens, or starvation have been around ever since we became civilized, and the documentaries, though many, simply cannot be expected to provide any immediate solution to these problems. Even though these facts are true, I argue that the goal of a documentary isn’t to solve the problem but only to provide awareness. Through that awareness we are expected to change our lives in very small increments that will eventually suffice; will in the future bring an end to these problems. I claim also that the documentary’s goal is not to change the world; it is to change our minds. Think of documentaries as less of a super hero and as more of a caring citizen. Maybe we all aspire to create a project that will solve a global problem, but that’s just not practical.

I think that perhaps if even one of these children lives a better life because of the documentary made about them, maybe even that amount of success is enough to make Briski’s efforts noble. In this case, the child Avijit becomes appraised for his photography skills, and represents his whole country (in India’s case nearly one and a quarter billion people) in an exhibition. If you look at it from Avijit’s point of view, it’s impossible to not see the benefits of “Born into Brothels.” Now, sure we don’t (and probably will not) see a lot of benefit from this one documentary, but can that really be expected by one group of people working together on a single project? After more awareness has been raised, maybe we will see a small change. The more awareness, the better. I feel that we have a chance to make life better for these children-but your quote applies for us too; we are inherently greedy. The people creating these documentaries, the ones raising the awareness are the people who are doing their job. We are the ones who are maintaining the problem. We sit around with this attitude that the documentaries created about these doomed children are useless and in fact making the problem worse when it is us who at the same time are feeding the fire. Briski’s efforts are entirely justified, and the only apparent failure is that there are not more people like her that are willing to lend a hand.

I must agree with Cory Stark (and apparently disagree with Martha Rosler) about documentaries and their goals. If you really look at most of the documentaries today, they all have a point that they are trying to get across, but few of them accomplish anything towards that point. In fact, if we really look at the issues around the world such as global warming or starvation across the globe, it is not often that we see any resolution in any of these matters in the near future. Issues such as homeless and unemployed citizens, or starvation have been around ever since we became civilized, and the documentaries, though many, simply cannot be expected to provide any immediate solution to these problems. Even though these facts are true, I argue that the goal of a documentary isn’t to solve the problem but only to provide awareness. Through that awareness we are expected to change our lives in very small increments that will eventually suffice; will in the future bring an end to these problems. I claim also that the documentary’s goal is not to change the world; it is to change our minds. Think of documentaries as less of a super hero and as more of a caring citizen. Maybe we all aspire to create a project that will solve a global problem, but that’s just not practical.

I think that perhaps if even one of these children lives a better life because of the documentary made about them, maybe even that amount of success is enough to make Briski’s efforts noble. In this case, the child Avijit becomes appraised for his photography skills, and represents his whole country (in India’s case nearly one and a quarter billion people) in an exhibition. If you look at it from Avijit’s point of view, it’s impossible to not see the benefits of “Born into Brothels.” Now, sure we don’t (and probably will not) see a lot of benefit from this one documentary, but can that really be expected by one group of people working together on a single project? After more awareness has been raised, maybe we will see a small change. The more awareness, the better. I feel that we have a chance to make life better for these children-but your quote applies for us too; we are inherently greedy. The people creating these documentaries, the ones raising the awareness are the people who are doing their job. We are the ones who are maintaining the problem. We sit around with this attitude that the documentaries created about these doomed children are useless and in fact making the problem worse when it is us who at the same time are feeding the fire. Briski’s efforts are entirely justified, and the only apparent failure is that there are not more people like her that are willing to lend a hand.

In fact, the featured childrens' suing the now-celebrity filmmakers is really a less significant point; I believe that we should be more concerned about the following: (1) the unethical filming of sex workers and their children without permission; (2) rampant, plagiarized use of Satyajit Ray's music used on the soundtrack; (3) total breach of promised safeguarding of the identity of the children and their sex worker parents; (4) biased, distorted portrayal of Calcutta and suppression of info on sex workers' solidarity movement; and (5) making enormous money and fame exploiting the poor and vulnerable.

Born Into Brothels kids sue filmmakers!

Read blog at http://bornintobrothelslies.blogspot.com