Born into Brothels explores the lives of several children raised in India's notorious red-light district. Directed by photojournalist Zana Briski, the film chronicles the filmmaker's attempts to enroll the children into various boarding schools, all the while depicting their efforts at photography, as they are turned loose in their homes with point-and-shoot 35mm cameras. This paper will examine a number of critiques of the film centering on its individualistic and Westernized structure, in narrative, ideological, and stylistic terms. The representations of people (children, parents, filmmaker), as well as institutions and activities (school, prostitution, art) depicted in the film, are important to these critiques. Further, this paper will contextualize that the role of art in the film, as well as Briski's actions outside the film that undermine many of these critiques.
The film begins as an exploration of the lives of eight Indian children living in the brothels of Sonagachi and transforms into a more narrative account of the role of the filmmaker in the children's lives. According to Briski, the film came about while she was living among the sex workers of the district and attempting to photograph their lives.
[...] Judgments are made about the activities, people, and institutions presented throughout the film, but these opinions should be viewed as purely contextual and necessary for the narrative purposes of the film. The debates over representation of reality in documentary certainly extend beyond the scope of this paper, but ultimately, I believe, only good can come from the artistic license of filmmakers working within the documentary form. Bibliography Banerjee, Partha. “Documentary "Born Into Brothels" and the Oscars: an insider's point of view.” Mukto-Mona
[...] This distance prevents the viewer from imagining Briski as fully integrated into the lives of these children, and instead we imagine her as more of an anthropologist engrossed in her work, commenting on it from the outside. All of this is not to say that Briski is completely removed from her subjects or misleading to her audience, but rather to complicate and question the notion of what constitutes the ethical standard by which documentarians treat their subjects and subject matter. [...]
[...] Very little evidence is provided for this assumption, but as viewers we take Briski's determination as evidence of the necessity. We watch as Briski single- handedly battles the Indian bureaucracy's seemingly endless amount of paperwork, the reluctance of the children's parents, and the attitudes of the children themselves in her rescue effort. Michel points out several characteristics that seem to complicate this highly appealing (as well as highly marketable) narrative. For instance, the role of other community resources, in the form of local activism, is completely omitted. [...]
[...] The role of poverty as central in the emergence of prostitution in Sonagachi is almost completely ignored and is replaced by the less complicated suggestion, that the parents themselves are simply morally corrupt. Never do we see parental figures in the film acting as such. The scenes selected for the film show adults in the community as lazy, indulgent, violent, and verbally abusive towards the children. While in reality, the living conditions created for these children by their parents are much better, in terms of the poverty level, than many other areas of India, we are never given access to this information. [...]
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