I signed up for Netflix a short time ago after a recent fruitless search through my local Blockbuster. God, I hate Blockbuster. Anyway, I just watched Born Into Brothels, which won the Academy Award this year for best documentary.
When I was in middle school and my sister was in college, she began majoring in photographer. My sister was very gifted with a camera, particularly at capturing people in candid moments. My sister, despite being a real talker, somehow managed to disappear when she had her camera. I say this because it's hard to get pictures in a candid moment of teenaged girls, and yet she took roll upon roll of photos of me and my friends without any of us noticing. On the other end of the spectrum is the photographer who becomes a part of what she is photographing.
Born Into Brothels tells the story of a photographer (Zana Briski) who went to the red light district of Calcutta in order to photograph the prostitutes. Instead, she gets caught up with their children and teaches them photography. The story has several interesting ideas – first is the transformative power of art on children who would otherwise simply become pimps and prostitutes themselves. Then there is the way that this story is just as much about Zana Briski getting wrapped up in saving these children. And finally, the horrifying truth that no schools in India will take these kids… these kids who need help more than anyone else. And even when there are schools that will take them, breaking from the red light district isn't always a possibility.
Two of the children are especially haunting – Kochi and Avijit. Kochi speaks with the sort of worldliness and brightness that an eleven year old simply shouldn’t have. And Avijit has the sort of talent with a camera that a trained photographer in his prime would kill for. Avijit, after his mother is murdered by her pimp, says “There is nothing called ‘hope’ in my future.”
Without giving anything away, some of the kids succeed, go to school, escape the district. Most of them don’t. Despite that, Zana's best interest, most of the kids wind up staying in the red light district. But Kochi and Avijit do succeed, and go off to school. Zana subsequently started a foundation for the kids where she sells their work to pay for their school. Some of the photography is truly amazing. Check it out.