In focus 

click to enlarge Manik, from Born Into Brothels, as - photographed by - Shanti, age 11.
  • Manik, from Born Into Brothels, as photographed by Shanti, age 11.

*Born Into Brothels (NR)
Kimball's Twin Peak

The selection committee of the local Rocky Mountain Women's Film Festival wisely brought Born Into Brothels to Colorado Springs last fall for a limited screening. Then, in February of this year, the film was awarded the Academy Award for Best Feature Length Documentary of 2004. Now it's showing at Kimball's Twin Peak. But get downtown to see it quickly -- it won't be around for long.

Co-director and producer Zana Briski, a New York photographer, doesn't choose easy subjects. Before Born Into Brothels, she made a documentary about infanticide in the slums of Calcutta. Then, from 2000 to 2003, she turned her attention to the red-light district of Calcutta and the children growing up there: sons and daughters of prostitutes.

Born Into Brothels opens with a jarring, shattered image that feels almost blood-smeared in its earthiness and intensity. Narrow alleyways and a damp orange stairwell are framed from the point of view of a pair of 10-year-old eyes. Up above, mothers apply makeup in preparation for an evening's work. In voiceover, Briski comments that it's almost impossible for a photographer to shoot pictures inside the brothels of Calcutta.

Her inspiration is to focus instead on the children who live there, meeting them and eventually distributing cameras, teaching them the basics of framing, lighting and capturing images. The children are bold and resilient, honest and candid. The girls know they are fast approaching the age at which they will be asked to sell their bodies to help support the ever-growing family of younger siblings, babies and grandmothers. The boys seem to have no imaginable future: The only man featured in the film, a father, is a burned-out hashish addict, squatting and sucking on a pipe as his children play around him.

Rather than focus exclusively on the squalor surrounding her and her subjects, Briski and co-producer Ross Kauffman turn their attention to the photography project as a possible way out for the kids. An exhibit of their work is hung first in a New York gallery, then at the Oxford Book Shop in Calcutta. They attend as the featured artists, signing prints of their remarkable work: images of stray dogs, crumbling buildings and haunting faces as well as shots taken on field trips out of the city.

Some of the photos are inspired, especially those of a chubby boy named Avijit, who's invited to join a select group of youngsters in Amsterdam as the Indian representative at an international photography workshop. When he is asked to analyze a photo of a starving woman, Ajivit explains its universal quality: It's sad, but we can't look away, because it's true.

Ajivit loses his mother during the course of the film and momentarily loses his motivation to continue his photography. What comes across so naturally in the film, again and again, is how desperately these kids love their families, despite the circumstances in which they live. A few scenes of enraged mothers screaming curses are hard to watch but underscore the misery of their existences and their helplessness to change.

Briski eventually tries to place the kids in boarding schools, struggling against inefficient bureaucracies and agencies that don't want to deal with the proverbial people from the wrong side of the tracks. Her efforts are only partially successful, a riveting reminder of the quagmire of poverty and the difficulty of change.

Briski continues to work on the children's behalf, building a school for them and raising funds for the project through sales of a coffee-table book of their photos. To learn more, visit www.kids-with-cameras.org.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

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