No social problem imperialism can’t fix (some info on Born into Brothels)

Full disclosure: I liked the film at first. I liked the methodology of the teaching. I adored the kids and thought they took extraordinary photos. But there was something gnawing at me as well. I looked around for reviews and came across the following documents. First is a letter from the Calcutta sex workers themselves. Next is a review in an Indian left-leaning magazine, Outlook. Last are some questions by someone who helped with the film but was disappointed in the final outcome.


Calcutta sex workers respond to Born Into Brothels

The following letter was published in The Telegraph, March 15, 2005

Nightmares on celluloid

Sir – There has been a lot of hype over Born into Brothels recently, with its maker, Zana Briski, winning an Oscar. In her interview with The Telegraph, “I didn’t even realise I was making a film” (March 7), she has said that we did not cooperate with her over the film.

It is true that she approached us and we too asked her many times to share the film with our ethics committee, but she didn’t pay any attention. Having seen the film recently, we now realize what the problem was. The film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex workers in Sonagachi. It shows sex workers as unconcerned about the future of their children. This is not true. Being a sex worker and a mother, I can say that we are more protective as mothers than can be imagined. The documentary does not shed light on the valiant efforts of the sex workers to unite in order to change their own lives as well as that of their progeny. In this sense, Born into Brothels is biased.

In this age, when it is the norm to respect ethical considerations while making documentaries, the film used hidden cameras to shoot intimate moments in the lives of sex-workers and their work zones.

We fear the global recognition of such a film, giving a one-sided view of the lives of sex workers in a third world country, may do a lot of harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights and dignity. It can even have an impact on their hard-won victories for rights, un-stigmatized healthcare and access to resources.

Yours faithfully,
Swapna Gayen, secretary, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Calcutta


OutlookIndia.com Magazine Mar 14, 2005

Zana’s Shutters

Briski’s Born Into Brothels begins as a story of Sonagachi’s children but ends with her as its sole heroine


Anointed by an Oscar and feted on the celebrity circuit, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman are flying well above the mean streets of Sonagachi, Calcutta’s red-light district, where their award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels is set. Briski, in a backless gown, blew a kiss from the Oscar stage across the oceans to the “kids” she said were watching in Calcutta. The big smile heralded the big times for the photographer and her co-director, now armed with the coveted statuette for their entire filmmaking life, thanks to the children and women of the city of joy.

Born Into Brothels is being hailed in the West as the ultimate uplifting film, a “humanitarian” effort by Briski who dared to live amid the squalor. Western critics and audiences are taken up by the British-born photographer’s knight-in-shining-armour efforts. Some of the children too are happy she got the award. The film is about the “missionary zeal” with which she tried to save seven kids from their environment in Sonagachi. And from Calcutta, a city ever fascinating to “white” saviours, from Mother Teresa to Dominique Lapierre and now Briski.

The film centres around Briski’s efforts to improve the lives of some children she befriended in 1997 while trying to document the lives of sex workers in Calcutta. Unable to fulfil her original goal, she shifted her focus to the kids, giving them cameras and basic lessons in photography. The children take telling shots of their surroundings which Briski later used for exhibitions and a Sotheby’s auction in 2001 to raise money. Amnesty International used a photo for its 2003 calendar. Flush with grants, she created ‘Kids With Cameras’, a charitable organisation to help the children.

But Born Into Brothels won’t be shown in India. At a recent screening in Washington, Kauffman said the sex workers whose children feature in the film don’t want it to be shown in India. The filmmakers want to protect their identities. Really? After an Oscar and a relentless run of the festival circuit, the issue of maintaining anonymity seems far-fetched.

The decision, whatever its merit, has already led to serious questioning of the filmmakers’ intent. Is it because Indian audiences and reviewers might take issue with Briski’s “intervention” in the lives of some of the most unfortunate? Members of the Durbar Women’s Coordination Committee, an organisation of Sonagachi’s sex workers, are unhappy about Briski’s high-handed decision. Sandhya Dutta, who helped Briski and lives in Sonagachi, told a Calcutta newspaper she felt “used” twice over because people in other countries were watching a film about their lives while she couldn’t.

Some critics are also asking whether the duo obtained legal permission from the sex workers whose innermost lives and conflicts they exposed, sometimes through the kids. One such child, Puja, enrolled in Briski’s photography class, clicks people who clearly don’t want to be photographed. The photos appear in the film, raising troubling questions about consent. If Sonagachi residents do not want to be immortalised on film by one of their own, they surely wouldn’t want to be exposed to a worldwide bazaar of gawkers.

The children in the film come across as children anywhere-likeable and friendly. They seem to have implicit faith in ‘Zana Aunty’ who shepherds them around, even taking one specially talented boy to Amsterdam for a photo contest after struggling to get him a passport. The film crosses the line from documentation to activism but no one knows whether the interventions helped or hampered the subjects.

In the end, the film seems more about Briski’s journey and less about the hard reality of prostitution and the effects of her interference in young lives. It tugs at the heart but leaves the head relatively untouched.Intentionally or not, Briski is the noble soul in the film, faced with the mountain of Indian bureaucracy, teaching the children photography, trying to move them to good schools, getting them tested for aids and taking them to the zoo. The film’s self-congratulatory tone thickens as it progresses through ‘Zana Aunty’s’ triumphs and travails, making us wonder who the real subject is.

The film also gives the impression that besides Briski, no one wants or is trying to improve the squalid scenario, that Indians are unaware and blind to the cancer within. The film’s paternalistic tone has evoked a response here. Most Western reviewers have seen Briski’s effort in the light she cast for them. The New York Times called the film “moving, charming and sad, a tribute to Ms Briski’s indomitability and to the irrepressible creative spirits of the children themselves”.

But Partha Banerjee, a New Jersey-based immigration advocate who interpreted hundreds of hours of tape for Briski from Bengali to English during the filming, was disturbed enough by the end-product to write to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month raising questions about the film, including the unauthorised use of music from Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. Having grown up in Calcutta, Banerjee is passionate about his city and incensed that the tireless work of other concerned citizens gets not even a fleeting mention. He says it is their work and organising prowess that keeps Sonagachi relatively free of hiv infections compared to other red-light areas in India.

Banerjee also says the children’s lives are “worse” rather than better, thanks to Briski’s intervention. “I visited these children a number of times over the last couple of years and found that almost all the children are now living a worse life than they were before Ms Briski began working with them,” he wrote to the Academy. “The children’s despair has exacerbated because they’d hoped that with active involvement in Ms Briski’s camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life.” Their parents believed their children would share some of the glory the filmmakers are now basking in, he said.

Banerjee told Outlook he doesn’t begrudge Briski her fame, but he finds her treatment “sensational” as it is unbalanced and ultimately unfair. During the filming, Briski’s relations with local activists worsened over many of her decisions. But do Briski and Kauffman have time to look back and analyse this? Not really.




Now that Born Into Brothels got the Hollywood Oscars, the questions that still linger about the documentary are:

(1) Did the producers and directors ever get permission from the sex workers to show their kids and lives to the world (including Calcutta and India) and aren’t their identities now widely exposed because of the new fame and glory and global distribution of news (for example, see big papers Anandabazar and Telegraph, Calcutta, March 1, where they’ve published names and schools of these kids);

(2) Why did the filmmakers show only the nasty side of the sex worker parents’ lives (portraying them as stupid and cruel) and not the positive side esp. how they’ve been *intelligently*raising their children round-the-clock and protecting them from any harm (you have to see these kids to believe how innocent they still are);

(3) Will the filmmakers ever show the entire film to the children and their parents and how the sex worker parents have been portrayed (not parts of the film, but the entire film should be shown to the featured sex worker parents and their children – it’s only fair);

(4) Why did they completely bypass the fact that the local activists have turned that area into a safe refuge for sex workers and that their efforts have brought down the AIDS rate and poverty to a remarkably low level, among other achievements (these activists are very unhappy that their hard work is completely ignored by the filmmakers);

(5) What is the directors’ relationship with the local activists like, and if it’s not good, why so (did they ever try to build a relationship with them or did they always ignore/bypass them);

(6) How much money exactly they’ve raised through the film and calendar, etc. (the directors claim “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” see Ross Kauffman’s interview in Washington Post) and how much of it went to the kids and how much to their parents, if anything to the parents (and isn’t it humane to get the parents out of the misery too without breaking up the families);

(7) Why do the filmmakers emphasize so much on yanking the children out of their families and putting them into missionary boarding schools (when there are so many other good schools in Calcutta that are much less expensive and the money could’ve been spent to rehabilitate both the children and the parents, plus more);

(8) What are Zana Briski’s views about Calcutta in general (often she told me they were negative) and does she remember that she was given shelter and protection, during her short stays, by those sex workers and activists (the women she stayed with say now they’re not happy that they never got to see the work or the money);

(9) How much time Ross and Zana spent in total in Calcutta over the past few years and what is their Bengali language proficiency (which would be good indicators of their familiarity of that place and its way of life – we know that they were completely dependent on translators and interpreters like myself – and we did much more, on our own, for the project);

(9) Did they ever get permission from Satyajit Ray film authorities in U.S. or India while lifting Ray’s/Ravi Shankar’s music for the film (the answer is “no”); and

(10) How come they’ve shown all the children to be those of sex workers’ when they’re actually not, and isn’t that unethical, and dangerous for the children?


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