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On a Roll: Zana Briski let young kids in Calcutta film their own lives for 'Born Into Brothels.'

Negatives, Positives

The children of Calcutta's prostitutes speak for themselves in 'Born Into Brothels'

By Richard von Busack

ZANA AUNTIE, the children call her. The photojournalist Zana Briski decided to infiltrate a Calcutta brothel for photographic purposes. Neither the customers nor the women "in the line," as the slang goes—wanted to be filmed. The children of the prostitutes intrigued Briski. So she returned to New York, bought a pair of video cameras on her credit cards and went back to India with her then-boyfriend Ross Kauffman.

Kauffman and Briski's Born Into Brothels, with its unignorable, exploitation-movie title, profiles eight children of prostitutes. Briski taught them to use 35 mm cameras in hopes of documenting their world. The girl children are often under pressure by their relatives to join them "in the line." The boys, with missing fathers or parents with drug problems, try to make their way in a world where status and snobbery may be even more forceful than they are in the United States.

All the children prove themselves loaded with talent. One star photographer emerges—the 12-year-old Avijit. There's a strong sense of suspense when Avijit starts to tune out, as if he's running out of the energy to fight his way out of the slums. Another standout photographer is Suchitra, a 14-year-old, who took a photo used on the cover of the Amnesty International 2003 calendar. Sadly, her prettiness is causing the whoremasters to size her up.

Born Into Brothels does look like a first film. Often we are not sure what or whom we are seeing. The camera technique is often as basic as a home movie. Yet Briski is a good teacher—intuitive, stubborn and strict when she needs to be (as when the children waste some film trying to shoot at night). Calcutta here looks as fresh to us as it does to these marvelous children. We can share their delight when they're shrieking with pleasure at a trip to the beach, or the sadness of the 10-year-old Kochi scrubbing muddy tin cooking pots with wads of newspaper. And we understand the frustration of Indian life when Briski rides the bureaucratic merry-go-round trying to get Avijit a passport. This scene is close to humor: the humor of the unbearable. At the food-rationing office there's one shot, reminiscent of the scene in The Bicycle Thief, of the mountain of pawned bedsheets. Here the camera travels up, up the side of thousands of files, stacked 12 feet high in cubbyholes. Below them, the office women hunt and peck on the keyboards of rusty typewriters.

What lesson can be learned from Born Into Brothels? In the richer countries, the pose of the artist is the easiest to strike—and the easiest to defend. The narcissistic novelist, the self-deluded transgressive photographer and the boutique filmmaker—all love to forget that they operate in a background of great privilege, poor as they might feel themselves to be. Let the artist enjoy himself, let him dissipate himself, but a little guilt would only be becoming. Better still would be a sense of duty to those who will never be able to hold a pen, a paintbrush or a camera.

Born Into Brothels (R; 85 min.), a film by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman, opens Friday at select theaters.

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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