I saw this movie, Born Into Brothels, at the E Street Cinema the other day. It’s about this British woman, Zana Briski, who goes into the red light district of Kollkata, India, to shoot photos. Eventually she decides to teach the children living there how to take pictures and tries to use this as a gimmick to raise funds for them to go to good schools. It’s charity, Hollywood-style.
While it was interesting watching her navigate the international and Indian systems to try and save the kids from what all can agree is a pretty horrible life, you can’t fight the feeling that for her they are no more than “noble savages” whom she has decided to civilize. Plus she only succeeds in getting one or two of the children to actually stay in school. The rest of them are either held back by their own lack of discipline or by their parents who need the children to sustain their livelihood in the sex trade. Letting these kids play with cameras and taking them to the zoo ends up giving some of the kids false hope. Suchitra, one of the most enthusiastic photographers, ends up becoming a whore despite hoping for the best: “When I have a camera in my hands I feel happy. I feel like I am learning something…I can be someone.”
Also, the director had a very narrow and gimmicky approach to helping these kids. They were only worth helping insofar as they remained photogenic, their families and the rest of India be damned. There are lots of scenes of hopeless Indian bureaucracy — forms are filled out with old typewriters, moldy records litter offices — but they aren’t put into any context except to serve as barriers to Briski’s mission to save these children through the magic of photography. One gets the feeling that she doesn’t understand much about India’s problems save for what she can see immediately surrounding her.
Now that the movie has won an Oscar for Best Documentary, however, protests have arisen from a Kollkata NGO that claims that the woman didn’t follow proper protocol. The filmmakers didn’t check in with the largest NGO in the area before filming in a dangerous location, and in addition ignored attempts by the organization to contact them. At first, the NGO’s complaints sound like territorial bickering and sour grapes. Like many institutions, they are looking to get a piece of the pie and are probably bitter that they didn’t get an ounce of credit in the film for the work they do. But take a look at this:
DMSC officials, who have not seen the film but heard about it from other sources, said they fear the documentary is inauthentic in not being shot in Sonagachi, but in some other neighbourhood in the city.
Doubts are also being raised about the identity of the children showed as offspring of sex workers of Sonagachi.
“No one told us that a documentary was being made on the lives of the children of sex workers. We are not unhappy about that, but we wish a balanced view of things were presented. Also, we want the collective uplift of the children and not only a few individuals,” said Dutta.
OK, now I feel cheated. These people weren’t even in the *real* Red Light District! Was this lady pulling a fast one on us? It sounds like the lady who made this probably had a good reason to avoid a legitimate NGO — this stinks of the crass heart-string pulling filmmaking that Oscar loves. She was doing exactly the kind of stupid crap that they would frown upon — going in and exploiting the kids to get a few good photographs and a lot of recognition.
I had my doubts when watching the film — not only is the film woefully light on background, the film leads you to believe that these kids are totally uneducated and don’t speak English. But in certain parts of the film you can overhear kids speaking English or they’ll say something in English with a far-too-good accent.
Don’t get me wrong — you don’t doubt the woman’s sincerity when watching the film — it’s just that her approach is so wrongheaded as to be harmful. Now that it’s won an Oscar, people might actually believe that this kind of behavior is legitimate charity work.