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Born Into Brothels

ThinkFilm // R // September 20, 2005
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeff Paramchuk | posted November 15, 2005 | E-mail the Author
When Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman finally succeeded at their attempt to be allowed to film a documentary in the brothels of Calcutta, they could have never imagined what eventually came to pass. Not content with simply visiting the brothels and filming when she was there, Briski was granted the right to stay amongst the women and families that call the seedy, grimy dwellings home. When she first arrived, the children of the residents did what children do naturally; flock to the new stimulus and try to learn as much about it as they can. In this particular case the stimulant was Zana Briski and her cameras. Living in the brothels, the children thrive in conditions that as westerners we would cower and shy away from. Due to the extreme poverty they live in they have never seen a luxury like a camera of either the video or film variety, hence the fascination.

Briski (affectionately called Zana Auntie by the children) abandons her initial reason for being in the brothels and decides that the children are a much better reason to be there, and starts to teach them some basics of photography. We are gradually introduced to the core group of eight children (Avijit, Gour, Puja, Tapasi, Kochi, Suchitra, Shanti and Manik) by one of the girls in the group named Puja, and as she candidly talks about each of her friends, we see a photographs that the children have taken themselves; many of which are fantastically crafted and composed, which given that none of them had seen a camera previously is quite a sight.

As the film progresses, we learn that these kids who normally are ignored on the streets are far more aware of themselves and their surroundings than we give them credit for. Some dream of lives far away from the brothels, working hard for a living in and not working in "the line" with their relatives. It's very emotional to see and hear these children that are so neglected and abused express themselves through not only their words, but through the amazing photographs they take.

As Briski learns to love these children she realizes that she is their link to a different life and personally takes on the task of helping this group of shy, energetic and intelligent children by talking with boarding schools and arranging meetings with mothers and school officials to try and convince them that there is a better life than the brothels available. We follow Briski as she tries in vain to get ration card for one boy, only to become very overwhelmed and frustrated with the casual and relaxed way the Indian authorities handle paperwork and official business.

Realizing that she can do more for these children by actually using the art that they've been creating, Zana hosts a gallery featuring the photos taken by the children with unprecedented success. Because this gallery was held in the United States, Briski wanted the kids to feel the rush and thrill of seeing their own work on display at a local gallery. What follows is a humorous scene where the children are ecstatic about seeing people actually buying their photographs, and some very entertaining television interviews with the children.

Because the proceeds from all prints sold went towards helping fund the children's education and further art teachings, and seeing how much of a difference in their lives the small gesture of teaching the kids about photography made, Briski started a non-profit group called Kids With Cameras, with branches set up around the globe. Kids With Cameras teaches under-privileged children the simple joys that they can get out of photography, and also teaches them to express themselves in ways that people of any language or culture can understand.


How's it Look:

Born in Brothels is presented in its original 4:3 full frame aspect ratio. Colors throughout the feature are very well balanced and only help to show the conditions these children live in, and also highlight the beauty that they've been able to find amidst their chaotic lives. The photographs that are displayed throughout the feature show absolutely amazing detail and have stunning color contrasts, and considering the quality level of cameras they seemed to be using, it's fairly safe to say that even with inexpensive equipment, given the right film and developing, stunning pictures can be taken by anyone.

Some scenes do show some grain, and sometimes things can be a little washed out, but I found that it really helped fit into the documentary very well, as India itself is a gritty and sometimes overwhelming place, and by filming they way they did through some scenes, Briski and Kauffman were able to bring the details to our screens.

How's it Sound:

Two sound options are available here for you to enjoy the sounds of Bollywood and listen to the story that Briski tells, and that is the requisite Dolby Digital 5.1 and Stereo options. The sound mix is very well done, and as this a film dominated by speaking it's a relief that even when the pounding music of Bollywood was used (and liberally) that the subtitles for the English speakers is not needed. By default, subtitles are on for the native Indian speakers. Thankfully the voices were not dubbed into English.


There's one way to make an Academy Award winning film even better when it's released onto DVD, and that way is to pump as many worthy features onto the DVD as possible.

A short feature revisits the children three years after the filming ended, and we follow Zana Briski as she sees the kids for the first time since filming ended. This is a slightly emotional, yet short on dialog feature where we're re-introduced to the group through photos of them when younger juxtaposed with images of them as teens.

Another great extra feature is the video commentary that shows the kids watching the film for the first time. Only selected scenes are shown, but we get a glimpse into what the kids think of the movie, with their emotions ranging from laughter to some anger this was a very interesting feature.

Nearly 13 minutes deleted scenes are also included featuring things like the kids going to the water park with their waterproof cameras, a trip to the photo lab, a scene with the little seen but briefly mentioned Mamoni (another student in the photography class), to the kids being introduced to the internet and email for the first time. It's easy to see why they were cut as they'd conflict with the pacing and direction that the film ultimately took.

A six minute interview segment with Briski, Kauffman and Charlie Rose is included, with Briski discussing the film and speaking about the children.

A trailer gallery is available to view featuring trailers for Game Over, Overnight, and Mondovino. Also forced trailers for Murderball and the Aristocrats are shown after the DVD is first inserted into your player.

The theatrical trailer for Born Into Brothels as well as the acceptance speech from the Academy Awards is also included on this DVD release.

Finally the very first bonus feature that anyone viewing this film absolutely must watch is the commentary by Briski and Kauffman. This commentary is by far the best director commentary that I've ever had the privilege of listening to. Not only do these two show their commitment to the film through technical details they discuss ranging from editing to having every single frame of footage they shot translated into English to better help them construct a story, to the insights they give to reasons for shooting a scene a particular way. They also offer so much more insight into the children and their lives within the brothels, talking more about their families and memories they have of the kids from when they were in Calcutta. I'd almost put the commentary on par with the actual feature, as I found it almost equally as enthralling as the feature itself.

Closing Thoughts:

Born Into Brothels was well very deserving in its win at the Academy Awards for best documentary feature in a year which featured some very good contenders. This emotion tugging film touched this reviewer in a way that few documentaries have before. Seeing these kids being so self aware really came as a shock, and was a real eye opener as to how I think about the less privileged. Watching the kids grow in their abilities to compose and create artistic photographs, and overcome the challenges and burdens put upon them is a testament to their desire to make better lives for themselves and their friends.

Kauffman and Briski put together a fantastic film, and ThinkFilm produced an equally as great DVD for the home market. The quality of the documentary combined with the outstanding features easily earns this our highest rating. DVD Talk Collector Series.
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