Friday, September 14, 2007

Born into Brothels


Zana Briski, a documentary photographer travelled to Calcutta, India to photograph prostitutes and found herself smitten with their beautiful and surprisingly resilient children. She decides to give inexpensive cameras and teach photography to a close-knit clan of about a dozen of them.

The result is a moving film chronicling Zana's crusade to break the chain, and free these little girls and boys from their would-be march into third-generation prostitution. It features their self-made photos of their lives and surroundings, subtitled dialogue, their struggles and accomplishments, and very little narrative.

Much of the film is comprised of random conversations with these children, ranging in age from about 8 to 13 years old. One beautiful little girl remarked that the older women ask her when she’ll "join the line"…"it won’t be very long."

Beautiful, smiling kids, playing in the streets and on the rooftops. There are no playgrounds, no green space. Despite the squalor, violence and abuse, they are delightfully happy, healthy kids. It was touching how the kids all support and comfort each other and amazing to see how siblings take responsibility for their younger ones if they lose their parents, or there parents are incapable of parenting. And there was a brave little brother that wants to take his little sister away from the brothels.

These children are all quite well aware of what their mothers do when they "work", often times in a room in their crowded, dirty flats. In many cases, older sisters, mothers and grandmothers all participate in what is for many families in the area, the sole source of their meager incomes. Not all of them are single, either, with their husbands either falling into drug addiction or promotion of prostitution, even selling their own little girls into the trade.

Violence, abuse and poverty overshadow their lives and yet these little kids are optimistic for their future, even the little girls' outlook belies their most assured slide into prostitution. They laugh together, they support each other and they hug and play together, not knowing any better. Not knowing how some other kids around the world live.

One little girl remarks with a big smile "...one comes to accept that life is full of sadness and disappointment." Another little boy after the death of his mother "There is nothing called hope in my future." And yet there was hope, thanks to their friend Zana, photographer turned missionary.

Zana fights to free these kids, especially the girls, from the throes of prostitution and lobbies officials to help her find boarding schools that will waive their usual policy of not accepting the children of criminals. Her travails on their behalf include seeking medical exams to prove none of them have HIV and securing a passport for one who won to an exhibition of photography by gifted children in Amsterdam.

To fund her efforts, she enlists the help of some of her colleagues in the photography business in an effort to sell the striking photos of these children. They appeared for auction at Sotheby's and one, "Girl on a Roof" by Suchitra appeared on the cover of Amnesty International's 2003 calendar. All proceeds went and continue to go the fund the children's eduction.

This Oscar-winning film is moving and well made, has very little dialogue, and is well coupled with native music from the region.

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