Documentary "Born Into Brothels" and the Oscars: an insider's point of view

Below is a letter I wrote to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award organizers) on this year's nominated documentary "Born Into Brothels," a film I closely worked on. The film is based on the lives of some kids of Kolkata's (Calcutta) red light district Sonagachhi.

I waited a couple of weeks after sending in the letter and because AMPAS did not respond to my letter (no surprise), I decided to publish it in a few listservs and send it to a few individuals.

There's no other motive than letting people know about my own POV on the documentary. Having raised in Kolkata myself, I think I have my rights to say a few things about the "documenting" of the city.

This is not a typical "critique" of the film. Also, the self-indulging comments about myself in the letter are only to reinforce to them the notion that the views are coming from someone who knows the "art and the artists."



Executive Director Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences 8949 Wilshire Boulevard Beverly Hills California 90211

February 1, 2005

Dear Executive Director:

Subject: Nominations for the 77th Annual Academy Awards: Born Into Brothels

Your announced nominations for the upcoming 77th Annual Academy Awards include in the Best Documentary Feature section "Born into Brothels" (THINKFilm, A Red Light Films, Inc. Production, by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski). I have been actively involved with the making of the documentary especially in its post-production stage. As a documentary filmmaker, a Columbia University-trained journalist-turned- activist and an avid admirer of the medium of film and motion pictures, I am deeply concerned that the nominations committee has perhaps overlooked some of the probable, serious flaws contained within the film � both ethical and stylistic.

In your official synopsis, the film is described as follows: "While documenting the experiences of prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light district, photojournalist Zana Briski befriended many of their children and decided to provide them with a chance to record images from their own lives. Supplied with cameras by Briski, the children present a portrait of their harsh world that is both unique and insightful."

The above is indeed true. And I don't have any problems finding credit for Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman for the time they took to live with and befriend the poor children. However, I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true.

I visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them. The children's despair has exacerbated because they'd hoped that with active involvement in Ms. Briski's camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life. At the same time, their sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously (were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in. Alas, very likely, they don't even know that their misery, helplessness and traumas are now being widely exposed and exploited to find fame and prosperity.

Further, the film forgets to mention that Calcutta is a city where its red-light district is a safe refuge for its sex workers and their trade. With help from hundreds of Calcuttan activists, social workers and medical practitioners, Sonagachi (the district depicted in the film) has become synonymous with many struggles won by its inhabitants (for one, the HIV rate among sex workers in Sonagachi is remarkably low: 5% compared to 80% in Mumbai). These sex workers and their activist comrades have set up -- however rudimentary -- financial institutions, health clinics, sex education schools and blood banks in that labyrinth of alleys that would otherwise be ignored and rejected by the other side of Calcutta and its elite doctors, artists, poets, filmmakers and politicians (and I must say, I was one of this other side for more than twenty five years of my life before I moved into U.S.). The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd. "It takes a village�"

Stylistically, the documentary is in fact a mix of real and fictitious shots and scenarios, the latter being abundant throughout the film. This makes me question the legitimacy of the film being labeled as a documentary and not a fiction. A plethora of glitzy, Bombay-film-industry (i.e., Bollywood) music has been used to editorialize the film, which is troubling.

The most troubling, however, is the use of the final piece of music that ends the "documentary" with an apparent melodramatic note. This piece (it was in there at the time the film was premiered at New York City's Museum of Radio and Television in 2004) has been directly "lifted" from the celebrated Calcuttan film maestro, Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy finale. Is Ms. Briski or Mr. Kauffman aware of this serious digression?

It is not my wish to personally tarnish the directors and producers of Born into Brothels and I apologize profusely in the event my assertions are found untrue. However, I am troubled by the nominations and eulogies heaped upon the film without some serious re-examination. We Calcutta-born Americans who crave for high art and creativity are already much-undermined by many other attempts to relegate our beloved city into ignominy. My opinion is that the present so-called documentary is the latest addition to that series of gross misrepresentations.

Thank you for your kind attention.


Partha Banerjee
M.Sc. (Journalism), Ph.D. (Biology)

Story from Outlook India
Magazine| Mar 14, 2005


Zana's Shutters 

Briski's Born Into Brothels begins as a story of Sonagachi's children but ends with her as its sole heroine




Anointed by an Oscar and feted on the celebrity circuit, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman are flying well above the mean streets of Sonagachi, Calcutta's red-light district, where their award-winning documentary Born Into Brothels is set. Briski, in a backless gown, blew a kiss from the Oscar stage across the oceans to the "kids" she said were watching in Calcutta. The big smile heralded the big times for the photographer and her co-director, now armed with the coveted statuette for their entire filmmaking life, thanks to the children and women of the city of joy.


Born Into Brothels is being hailed in the West as the ultimate uplifting film, a "humanitarian" effort by Briski who dared to live amid the squalor. Western critics and audiences are taken up by the British-born photographer's knight-in-shining-armour efforts. Some of the children too are happy she got the award. The film is about the "missionary zeal" with which she tried to save seven kids from their environment in Sonagachi. And from Calcutta, a city ever fascinating to "white" saviours, from Mother Teresa to Dominique Lapierre and now Briski.


The film centres around Briski's efforts to improve the lives of some children she befriended in 1997 while trying to document the lives of sex workers in Calcutta. Unable to fulfil her original goal, she shifted her focus to the kids, giving them cameras and basic lessons in photography. The children take telling shots of their surroundings which Briski later used for exhibitions and a Sotheby's auction in 2001 to raise money. Amnesty International used a photo for its 2003 calendar. Flush with grants, she created 'Kids With Cameras', a charitable organisation to help the children.


But Born Into Brothels won't be shown in India. At a recent screening in Washington, Kauffman said the sex workers whose children feature in the film don't want it to be shown in India. The filmmakers want to protect their identities. Really? After an Oscar and a relentless run of the festival circuit, the issue of maintaining anonymity seems far-fetched.


The decision, whatever its merit, has already led to serious questioning of the filmmakers' intent. Is it because Indian audiences and reviewers might take issue with Briski's "intervention" in the lives of some of the most unfortunate? Members of the Durbar Women's Coordination Committee, an organisation of Sonagachi's sex workers, are unhappy about Briski's high-handed decision. Sandhya Dutta, who helped Briski and lives in Sonagachi, told a Calcutta newspaper she felt "used" twice over because people in other countries were watching a film about their lives while she couldn't.


Some critics are also asking whether the duo obtained legal permission from the sex workers whose innermost lives and conflicts they exposed, sometimes through the kids. One such child, Puja, enrolled in Briski's photography class, clicks people who clearly don't want to be photographed. The photos appear in the film, raising troubling questions about consent. If Sonagachi residents do not want to be immortalised on film by one of their own, they surely wouldn't want to be exposed to a worldwide bazaar of gawkers.


The children in the film come across as children anywhere�likeable and friendly. They seem to have implicit faith in 'Zana Aunty' who shepherds them around, even taking one specially talented boy to Amsterdam for a photo contest after struggling to get him a passport. The film crosses the line from documentation to activism but no one knows whether the interventions helped or hampered the subjects.


In the end, the film seems more about Briski's journey and less about the hard reality of prostitution and the effects of her interference in young lives. It tugs at the heart but leaves the head relatively untouched. Intentionally or not, Briski is the noble soul in the film, faced with the mountain of Indian bureaucracy, teaching the children photography, trying to move them to good schools, getting them tested for aids and taking them to the zoo. The film's self-congratulatory tone thickens as it progresses through 'Zana Aunty's' triumphs and travails, making us wonder who the real subject is.


The film also gives the impression that besides Briski, no one wants or is trying to improve the squalid scenario, that Indians are unaware and blind to the cancer within. The film's paternalistic tone has evoked a response here. Most Western reviewers have seen Briski's effort in the light she cast for them. The New York Times called the film "moving, charming and sad, a tribute to Ms Briski's indomitability and to the irrepressible creative spirits of the children themselves".


But Partha Banerjee, a New Jersey-based immigration advocate who interpreted hundreds of hours of tape for Briski from Bengali to English during the filming, was disturbed enough by the end-product to write to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences last month raising questions about the film, including the unauthorised use of music from Satyajit Ray's Apu trilogy. Having grown up in Calcutta, Banerjee is passionate about his city and incensed that the tireless work of other concerned citizens gets not even a fleeting mention. He says it is their work and organising prowess that keeps Sonagachi relatively free of hiv infections compared to other red-light areas in India.


Banerjee also says the children's lives are "worse" rather than better, thanks to Briski's intervention. "I visited these children a number of times over the last couple of years and found that almost all the children are now living a worse life than they were before Ms Briski began working with them," he wrote to the Academy. "The children's despair has exacerbated because they'd hoped that with active involvement in Ms Briski's camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life." Their parents believed their children would share some of the glory the filmmakers are now basking in, he said.


Banerjee told Outlook he doesn't begrudge Briski her fame, but he finds her treatment "sensational" as it is unbalanced and ultimately unfair. During the filming, Briski's relations with local activists worsened over many of her decisions. But do Briski and Kauffman have time to look back and analyse this? Not really.



Also read Partha Banerjee's article in MM:

Four Days in Free Bangla