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Photo opportunities
Developing negatives into positives in Born into Brothels

Photography, so claimed the great French film critic André Bazin, can redeem reality. We havenít seen much evidence of that over the past century and a half, but if a camera canít transform whatís seen in the viewfinder, maybe it can save the soul of the one snapping the picture. In Zana Briski & Ross Kauffmanís moving and inspiring Born into Brothels, the souls saved are those of innocent children. Thatís reason enough to see the film and praise it. But had Briski and Kauffman taken it on themselves to reflect the reality they confronted rather than simply "redeem" it into picturesque and palatable images, this could have been a masterpiece.

On an impulse, photographer Zana Briski took the Red Light District of Calcutta as a subject, and she lived there for a few years, getting to know the women and their families. Often several generations of prostitutes live and work under the same roof, and atop the roof is where you find their children during business hours, flying kites and playing and avoiding thoughts of the trade their mothers and grandmothers are plying beneath their feet, a trade that many of the girls are doomed to engage in, and very soon.

Brothels evokes the dread and fascination of this environment with its opening shot: the vibrant, threatening squalor and sordid transactions of a narrow alley shot from the eye level of a 10-year-old. Thatís one point of view the film tries to maintain, with mixed success. The other is that of Briski herself, who seems a saintly outpost of calm, compassion, and common sense amid the colorful chaos and inhumanity of her surroundings. Drawn to the children and their curiosity about her camera, and at a loss for any other way to help them, she teaches them her craft. Many respond with enthusiasm and genuine talent, even genius, that spark a hope their background threatens to extinguish.

So Briski exerts herself to get the brightest and most promising students into good private schools, and thatís where much of the drama of the film lies, with Briski, patient, bemused, and irritated, fighting to fulfill her chargesí potential, combatting the red tape of the system, the stigma of the kidsí lowly origins, their own insecurities and apathy, and the ignorance, greed, and anxiety of their families. Or perhaps the real drama lies in the filmís depiction of the artistic process. Waiflike children gambol with their cameras through the tenements and streets of the city or on outings to the zoo and the seashore. When they get back and look at the contact sheets and slides and prints, these banal subjects have become, if not redeemed, than at least transformed into images that are beautiful and true

Of all the young photographers, 12-year-old Avijit seems to show the most promise: as Briski points out, "he sure has an ego," and a moodiness that suggests a sensitive, creative nature. Not to mention that his pictures are stunning. When the brothel kids have an opening at a Calcutta gallery, a TV crew ask him what the purpose of taking pictures is, and he says itís to recover those who are far away, dead, or lost. Later, when heís chosen as one of a handful of kids from around the world to participate in a photography exposition in Amsterdam, he says he likes one picture in the exhibit because though what it shows is sad, we canít look away, because itís true.

Bazin couldnít have put it better. I would have liked to see Briski and Kauffman apply a bit more of Avijitís philosophy in their film. After a while, the sitar-backed slow motion and blurry tracking shots get a little syrupy. The menace hinted at in the opening scene recedes before shots of depravity, vice, and poverty so æstheticized by slick editing and artful composition, they have no sting. It seems almost a shame to take the kids away from such a gold mine of such fruitful subjects. Unlike the film, though, their cameras perceive the beauty without concealing the pain.

Every now and then, though, thereís a glimpse in Brothels of foul-mouthed whores squabbling in despair, or a report of a father beating someoneís mother, or of a pimp burning another personís mother to death. Itís true, but we look away. Before photography can redeem reality, it first has to reveal it.

Issue Date: January 28 - Feburary 3, 2005
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