Film Reviews


By • Dec 8th, 2004 •

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85 minutes / No MPAA Rating

QUOTE: We brush past the cruel and harrowing life of the women “in the line.”

According to Robert Deliege, author of “The Untouchables of India,” violent discrimination against “Dalits” or “Scheduled Castes” (as “Untouchables” are now called) is still openly practiced. Discrimination was outlawed by the Indian constitution in 1936 but little has changed for the 300-400 million people who “formerly” belonged to the Untouchable Castes of India. I lived in the state of Bihar, which has the second largest population of Scheduled Castes in India. Now compound the caste and sub-caste system (there are thousands of sub-castes of Untouchables) with being born into prostitution. For Indians, social stigmas cannot be overcome.

The orthodox Brahmans still believe, if the shadow of a Dalit falls on them, they are polluted and will have to be purified by sprinkling over themselves water from the holy river, the Ganges.

Photographer Zana Briski went to Calcutta in 1998 but was unable to photograph inside the red-light district of Sonagchi. Strangers and documentarians are not welcomed. Their lives are not entertainment or social research. Briski moved in and started teaching a group of children how to take photos. The children took photographs inside the district. Briski, now called Auntie Zana by the children, invited New York director Ross Kaufman to join her filming the lives of the children. BORN INTO BROTHELS follows seven children, ages 10 to 14. Briski became so involved with their plight that she organized exhibitions of their photographs, got one child a passport to represent the children at the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam, and navigated the Indian bureaucracy (an understandable way of life) to take these children away from their mothers and place them in boarding schools where the stigma of their social condition will surely still shadow them.

I travel frequently through third world countries. I lived in India and while I did not travel extensively – it’s the world’s largest democracy and a very big country – I can honestly say I have seen the squalor and extreme poverty in Calcutta. Leprosy is common. One must pass leper colonies to visit shrines in the Himalayas.

In BORN INTO BROTHELS there are glimpses of the living conditions inside the district but there is little we learn about the mothers “in the line.” How many men must they serve to feed their children? Can they even live on what they charge their clients? What kind of brutality and violence do they face daily? How do the children feel about what their mothers do to support them? How are the children treated in school?

Briski ignores the men who use these women or the men who permit their wives to work as prostitutes. Perhaps this is all they can do to survive. We do hear the women’s vulgar, filthy language. What saddened me is how the conditions of their lives force them to shout in sexually-degrading terms. It is the only way they can confront the horror and desperation of their lives.

Briski sets up an exhibition of the children’s photographs in a bookstore in Calcutta but some of the mothers cannot come. Briski apparently could not afford the twenty-five cents one mother needed for a babysitter.

What happiness do these women have in their lives except the love of their children? What hope is there for them in their old age? What are the social pressures that will force their young daughter to go “in the line?” There is no social security, unemployment, or social services for these women. The only love and kindness they will ever receive is from their children.

We cannot judge these lives by our standards. This is the first thing one must realize when traveling and living in other “less fortunate” cultures. Are these children miserable because they do not have cell phones, iPods, or PlayStations? Should Indians not have children because they cannot provide them with Nike sneakers or college educations? India has thrived even with its huge population (at March 1, 2001 the population stood at 1,027,015,247). Briski and Kaufman avoid giving us an insider’s view, instead concentrating on Briski’s good works and fund raising projects to help the children.

A far more harrowing and honest look at the sex industry in India is a small film that took years to finish, called THE DAY MY GOD DIED by Andrew Levine. This documentary is a shocking look at the child sex-slavery trade in Bombay.

Producers-directors-directors of photography: Zana Briski, Ross Kaufman
Executive producer: Geralyn White Dreyfous
Music: John McDowell
Editor: Nancy Baker

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