Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Own it:
Search for streaming:
NetflixHuluGoogle PlayGooglePlayCan I
With: n/a
Written by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
Directed by: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman
MPAA Rating: R for some sequences of strong language
Language: Bengali, English with English subtitles
Running Time: 85
Date: 01/17/2004

Born Into Brothels (2004)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Red Light Turns Green

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Many of 2004's high quality non-fiction films proved groundbreaking in the way that they mixed journalism with personal essays. Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves) and Jonathan Caouette (Tarnation) succeeded by stepping in front of their cameras and becoming part of the story.

Recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, the new film Born Into Brothels sounds like one of those stiff, somber films, narrated by someone with a British accent, about how horrible things are, but also how the children are big-hearted enough to endure.

But Ross Kaufman and Zana Briski's new film instead turns out to be a moving and passionate new example of that previously mentioned crossbreed.

While studying the red light district of Calcutta, British photojournalist Briski became personally involved with several of the children there, and began to teach them photography as a way to help them out of their everyday horror. She and co-director Kaufman documented the process.

And thus, the film quickly morphs from another document of misery and strife into a film about these magnificent children and Briski's attempt to get them out of the brothels before the girls are forced to join the dreaded prostitution trade.

Each of Briski's pupils, boys and girls whose ages range from 10 to 14, comes up with at least one magnificent photograph, but the star of the group is clearly twelve year-old Avijit, who had already proved a skillful artist with his drawings. Almost instinctively, Avijit snaps one photograph on the beach while pouring a bucket of water through the frame with one hand, and it turns into a magnificently composed scene.

The heart of the film lies in the children's photographs. Briski has since toured the world with the kids and their amazing photos (see, which brings us to the film's biggest drawback. If the photos are the centerpiece, then why see them in motion picture form?

Yes, meeting these young photographers is delightful, but what this film needed to transcend into greatness is more of Briski. As is, she appears completely selfless and totally devoted to the kids. Surely she must have her own dislikes, fears and hopes. Like Moore, McElwee and Caouette, she might have aired these demons on film, demonstrating something other than a mere good deed.

A minor quibble aside, Born Into Brothels is still a very effective, sometimes even enchanting, film. Put your money on it to win the Oscar.

Movies Unlimtied