Running Red Lights

Was anybody expecting Million Dollar Baby to sweep the Academy Awards? Once Clint Eastwood's euthanasia drama won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor, a consensus began to emerge in the media that Academy voters went sentimental this year. It was even suggested in some quarters that said sentimental streak extended to the Best Documentary category.

But anyone who actually saw Born Into Brothels, from the inaugural audience at Sundance to the critics screening it for this week's wide theatrical release, knows that there is little mushiness in the film.

"I don't think it is a sentimental film at all," says filmmaker Zana Briski. "I think it's a really honest film about these kids in the red-light district, and it shows everything from their joy and humor and beauty to the really harsh reality of their lives. I would not describe the film as sentimental, although I would describe it as a love story. I think it really is filled with love."

Despite Briski's insistence, the film is touching when not heart-wrenching in its depiction of the Calcutta children's plight. Co-directed by Briski and Ross Kauffman, Born Into Brothels captures her determination to save the kids by first inspiring them creatively, and then figuring out how to get them educations.

"It was an incredible experience," says Briski. "This whole project has really been all about empowering children through photography, and that's why I started a foundation called Kids With Cameras. I didn't know what I was doing when I started this. I was just responding to the kids around me, and they were very curious about my camera. It's really turned into something else, which is amazing."

Making a film, much less winning an Academy Award for it, was not on the photographer's mind when she made her first trip east. "I went to India in '95 to photograph different women's issues and whatever I found," she says. Briski documented problems of infanticide and selective abortion, "And then in '97 I went to Calcutta because I had photographs in a show. The next day someone took me to the red-light district. Prostitution wasn't anything I had planned to photograph. Even that part of it was a real surprise."

Then Briski discovered the children, who were fascinated by her camera. Avijit, Gour, Kochi, Manik, Puja, Shanti, Suchitra and Tapasi (there was a ninth child who was not present during much of the filming) became her focus, her proteges, and then her crusade. "I was really just responding to people asking me for help." She says. "It was quite simple: 'Take my child, take them somewhere safe.' It was the women and the chilldren. I just went around asking people. That's when I found out that nobody really wants to empower these kids. Or these women."

"Zana Auntie," as she was known to the children, was strongly affected by their impending fate. Ranging from ages 8 to 12 when she met them, their options were few. The three boys, with their adult personalities already emerging, were heading for a life that gave them the option of becoming pimps, thieves, drug dealers and users, and sellers of illegal alcohol.

The girls, however, wrestled with the knowledge that they soon would be "on the line" – start prostituting themselves. Some reveal that they are already feeling pressure from the prostitutes, or even their relatives. They live in the same rooms in which their mothers conduct business. Life is cheap, money talks, filth is everywhere, and profanity prevails.

Briski started teaching the kids photography at the tail end of one of her trips. She bought cameras in the States, and returned to Calcutta in 2000 with renewed determination.

She also brought a video camera and began to film. Had she not contacted Kauffman, though, Briski would have been unable to play her crucial role in front of the camera. "He was my boyfriend at the time," she says. "He loved film. He also loves kids. He was editing, and he really didn't want to edit even though he's great at it. It was a very intimate situation he came into, as I had spent year building trust with these kids."

"I remember getting there," recalls Kauffman. "Going to the hotel, Zana opening the door and saying 'We're leaving in 20 minutes.' I was like, 'OK.' I didn't think I was going to shoot that day, but I brought the video camera just in case.

"And of course, I got there and all I did was shoot. I met the kids, and they immediately took me in. I had a great time, and I actually have a photo of me, Puja and Kochi from that first day. And then Avijit invited us over for lunch in his room in the brothel. His grandmother made us lunch. It was a lovely day."

Kauffman shot expressive night scenes on digital video, which were used in the film's haunting establishing shots. The luminescence of the red lights create a mood of quiet, urban desperation and moody melancholia, into which Kauffman weaved close-ups of the children's eyes: this is what they see. Five years from now, if nothing was done, the girls would be on the streets.

"We knew that going into it," he says. "They knew where they were headed, too. When Zana was teaching the kids, it was very clear. It wasn't like she went in there to save kids. And she didn't end up saving them, she ended up helping them help themselves. This was never planned out."

Briski tried hard to get the kids into schools. As children of prostitutes and criminals, they were essentially untouchable. Kauffman's camera follows her as her attempts are rejected, and as she battles the bureaucracy in order to provide the proper credentials and paperwork that will get them accepted into school. We see the kids' exhilaration when they take a field trip to a beach. We cannot help but feel their bashful pride as they are shown a front-page story about them in a newspaper, or when they see the prints that will be shown at the first of what will be many exhibitions of their photographs.

We also witness a lot of profanity-laced, verbal confrontations between the women of the brothels. It's shocking, and then funny, when Kauffman brings up the fact that he didn't understand the language. "It was almost easier because in a way, they start screaming and yelling – and that happens all the time, by the way, that's not an unusual occurrence – and as it's going on, I know they're screaming and yelling but I don't know what they're saying. In a way it's almost easier because I'm filming the emotion of this scene, not the action itself."

What the film doesn't capture fully is the aftermath. Since being showcased at Sundance in 2004, Briski has parlayed the attention that the film received into a non-stop publicity and fundraising campaign. Kids with Cameras is now a full-fledged organization, with workshops planned for the children of Jerusalem, Haiti, and Cairo. Briski and Kauffman have been zig-zagging about the country, organizing and presenting fundraising exhibitions and screenings. "We're planning to build a school in Calcutta specifically for children of prostitutes," she says. "It will be a high-powered school of leadership and the arts. The kids are already helping me find other kids that want to be enrolled. Some of them are the siblings of the kids in the film."

The two plan to head back to Calcutta in April to look for land for the school, and Briski says that Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity, has agreed to design the building pro bono. Her pet project, however, is to produce a book featuring the children's work. "I'm going to do it myself. ... I want to do a real high-quality book. I'm looking for somewhere in the world that still does photogravures [a technique involving chemicals and engraved plates], and I'm not having much luck. It's a particular printing process that I think doesn't exist anymore. I think the last printer just closed down in Japan. I'm still holding out for that printing press because it's very, very beautiful. It's very rich. It's a very beautiful way of printing."

The book would build on the attention that the film has brought to these children. What winning an Oscar has done for the children is inestimable in terms of drawing publicity to Kids With Cameras, and the pay-it-forward effects of proactive, creative approaches to solving the problems of poverty. The children in Born Into Brothels are caught in a cycle that they could not escape because there was no opportunity for empowerment until Briski conceived of and provided one. There are many Zana Aunties in the world, unsung but providing the vehicles to escape that cycle.

For all of them, the scene in which Avijit cheerfully admonishes the driver of the cab that will take him out of the brothels to the airport for a conference in Amsterdam – and his future as a photographer – is universally symbolic.

"Please drive slowly," he says. "I won't get there if there's an accident. I won't fulfill my dreams."

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