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A labour of love

"Born into Brothels" has a sordid subject. But Zana Briski and Ross Kauffmann's effort is outstanding as it shows the light behind the shadows. The Oscar they received proves it, says LEKHA J. SHANKAR.



Ross Kauffmann and Zana Briski with their Oscars for "Born into Brothels"

"BORN INTO Brothels," which won the Oscar for Best Documentary, is an amazing film that shows how a dark, sordid and cliched subject like prostitution can be injected with fresh light, hope and vision.

The film centres round the children of the prostitutes of Kolkata, whom the young British photographer, Zana Briski, interacted with, when she went to do a story on the city's notorious red-light area, Sonagachi.

This writer saw the film and met up with its maker at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland, where it premiered. It was also screened at the recent Bangkok International Film Festival.

Briski was delighted, when this writer raved over her film, because at that time the film had not won its phenomenal critical acclaim. ``It was a labour of love,'' she exclaimed, ``those children showed me a new dimension of love and life that I've never experienced before.''

Zana's encounters with the children of Kolkata's prostitutes were wondrous, because they were painful and moving, and at the same time, elevating and inspiring. She said, ``The kids didn't seem to see a life for themselves beyond the vice-dens, and it was not easy to show them another world.''

Zana taught them photography, bought them cameras and took them to various places to take pictures. The children were surprised, excited and confused. In fact the biggest opposition the Director (who plays a central role in the film) faced, was from their mothers. However, Zana Briski and co-director Ross Kauffmann have started a Foundation called `Kids with Cameras' to collect money with which they plan to start a school for them. They also held an auction of the kids' photographs (organised by Sothebys) and released a book about them, which collected $100,000. This helped to put many of them in school.

One is reminded of Mira Nair's debut film, "Salaam Bombay" about the street children of Mumbai, that created a sensation when it was made two decades ago, and led to the formation of the Salaam Balak Trust.

The young artiste did her Master's degree in Theology and Religious Studies at Cambridge University before she studied documentary photography at the International Center of Photography in New York.

It was in 1995 that she made her first trip to India. She made her first movie on female infanticide, and studied other (clichéd) `Indian' subjects like child marriage, dowry deaths and so on.

She returned to India in 1997, to do a film on Kolkata's prostitutes and stayed in Sonagachi. At that time she discovered that she hit it off better with the children of the prostitutes!

Seeing the interest the kids took in her camera, Zana bought 10 simple cameras for them, taught them how to use it, and then, gave them full freedom to `shoot' pictures, while she recorded on video, their varied experiences.

Honest portrayal

The film captures these experiences — nervous, excited, magical — as the camera transports the children, for a short while, to a world far removed from their sordid, depressed surroundings.

But they have to return to their surroundings everyday, of course. The succinct power of the film lies in the fact that it shows both worlds with painful honesty.

In fact, the film captures the foul-mouthed fights and wild squabbles that the children have to encounter everyday. One of the most poignant moments in the movie is when one of the kid's mothers commits suicide. Zana's camera captures his stunned, confused face with simple honesty.

The film was born, when Zana took her video-recordings to New York, and showed them to her friend, Ross Kauffmann.

Kauffman had edited various documentaries and was launching out into an independent career as a documentary cameraman, when he saw Zana's video-sequences, and was transfixed.

The duo decided to go back to India and make a film out of it. They got grants from the Sundance Institute, Jerome Foundation and the New York State Council on the Arts, for the project. The rest is history.

"Born into brothels" has by now, won at least 25 awards, including the Audience Award at Sundance and the LA Film Critics Award for Best Documentary.

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