Since the days of the Babylonian empire there have been whores. The “whores” in question are not your smelly roommates who ate your leftover Domino’s pizza, but the traditional “ladies of the night” who deal in sex. Certainly, one could assume that even back then these women had their own illegitimate children. These children have been dealt a terrible hand by fate; they are the byproduct of lust and false romance. Obviously, they didn’t have any choice in what kind of life they would lead, but they exist in society nonetheless. The situation that brought these children into the world still exists to this day.
As you could guess from the title, “Born into Brothels” follows the lives of a group of prostitutes’ children. Set against the seedy red-light districts of Calcutta, the film uncovers one of the most taboo subjects of today’s world. Writer/Director Zana Briski follows these children, and we watch as she lends a helping hand to rescue these children from their depressing lives. One hesitates to call this a documentary, but more on that later. Over the course of the film, each of the eight children’s fates unfold, capped by a short epilogue at the end of the film. The most interesting points of the film come from the children themselves. Viewers literally watch as their innocence, like the last snowman of winter, slowly melts away as they realize the horrible conditions that plague their lives.
This film works well as a regular movie, but not as a documentary. Documentary filmmakers have a tendency to be objective and withdrawn from their subjects. They act as historians and commentators. They present something from the real world, allowing their audience to process the information and draw their own conclusions. Briski went into the brothels and decided to tell the story of the children. OK, fine — but then she committed a big documentary faux pas. She gave the kids cameras and decided to follow them around and see what they would do with them. This would be like the Discovery Channel specifically placing a shark and gorilla together in a tank to see which would win in such an unnatural throw-down.
Later, we see Briski attempting to set up a charity gallery to exhibit the children’s photos. At this point, the film focuses on this woman and her experiment rather than these kids and their lives. Finally Briski obtains funding and support from the United States so that these children may receive proper education in India. Briski becomes the star and begins to control the actions of these children. She is compassionate and does help them a great deal, but the truth still remains that she did not seem to objectively follow these children in their natural lives.
By creating her own plot and scenarios for the children, the film is much more like reality TV than a documentary feature. There is no point, counterpoint. Families of these children are totally ignored by the film, except when portrayed as detrimental to the children’s creativity. At the end, you are still asking yourself, “What is so special about these eight kids, and why should I care?”
As you may know, “Born into Brothels” won the Oscar for best documentary this year. This by no means qualifies it as an excellent film, but it does make it a substantial and worthwhile one. Let us not forget that its competition this year was “Biggie and Tupac,” and that other recent Oscar winners include such greats as “Speed,” “U-571” and “The Nutty Professor,” though, admittedly, these three won Oscars for specific technical achievements. Personally, I find watching a guy perform an experiment on himself by only eating McDonalds for 30 days more compelling.
Despite its misgivings, this is most definitely a story that needed to be told. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and hopefully you may find something in the film that this article overlooked. “Born into Brothels” plays at 7:30 tonight in Campbell Hall.