Walking the Line
In Their Stunning Story About The Children Of Prostitutes, Two Filmmakers Mix A Documentary Vision With Compassionate Activism
Ross Kauffman was skeptical of his then-girlfriend Zana Briski’s request: Come with her on her next trip to India and document her teaching photography to the children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s squalid red-light district. Kauffman, a film editor with 10 years experience putting together other people’s footage, was unsold on the idea of living months at a time in the unsavory neighborhoods Briski documented, but a tape she brought back of the kids at work tugged at his heart and made him rethink the offer. Two years later, he’s glad he did. Born Into Brothels, the documentary that was the fruit of Briski and Kauffman’s labor, just received an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature.
The film follows a group of eight children under Briski’s photographic tutelage, beginning in 2001 and ending with subtitled updates from one year ago. We see them gamboling through the streets, eyes glued to their viewfinders as they record the Dickensian chaos around them. Briski, a former Sun photographer, and Kauffman are determined to show the kids not as empty receptacles for First World guilt but as individuals, each one as bright and quick and distinct as any American fifth grader. There’s Puja, the fearless imp, and the tiny, shy Kochi, and the squabbling sister and brother Shanti and Manik. Seeing their humanity makes the sting of their inevitable destiny much sharper: These bright, adorable kids, by fault of the caste system’s prejudice and the grinding poverty of their families, will soon be worn down into hardened criminals and sex workers, consumed by the shadow world of the red-light district.
In an interview from his home in New York, Kauffman describes the district as an “incredibly energetic place . . . very sensual, and very scary.” The film focuses on this hive of jam-packed humanity, the main vein of which is “the line,” the seemingly endless stretch of available women standing shoulder-to-shoulder on the street, sometimes tarted up in castoff clothes, sometimes just wearing a homemaker’s everyday sari, arms crossed and eyes focused somewhere else. They come from families for whom the family business is prostitution, where the mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother are all veterans of the trade. With no other options (and no schools willing to educate the children of sex workers), come around puberty, it’ll be their daughters’ turns.
So how did a Westerner gain such an intimate look at a forbidden zone? Kauffman says it wasn’t as hard as it seems; Briski’s Indian friends and children were excited to meet “the boyfriend,” so by the time he arrived he was the subject of much welcome. While shooting in the often dicey area required common-sense precautions, he never had a problem getting the footage he needed, and he doesn’t feel he missed anything he wanted. By the end of principal photography, they had enough footage for a full-length documentary as well as the luxury of a yearlong edit to make the film that matched their vision.
The children’s progress under Briski’s tutelage is nothing short of amazing, especially that of Avijit, the young auteur with the keen eye of a preteen Brassai who speaks about his work with precocious insight. Avijit makes stupendous progress until his mother dies “in a kitchen accident”—a description that raises Briski’s alarm, leading her to discover that Avijit’s mother was set on fire by her pimp. We see the boy go limp emotionally in the aftermath, losing all passion for photography or schoolwork. Avijit is invited to a children’s photography conference in Amsterdam, but an absurd bureaucracy delays his passport into an Orwellian no man’s land. As Briski treks from one agency after another in search of the elusive document, we sense her frustration and know this is about more than a passport. Will Avijit forever believe he is trapped by circumstance, or can the miraculous intervene on his behalf?
Some of the kids in Born Into Brothels stay in boarding school and make good progress in their studies, but just how much of a victory is that? Kauffman acknowledges that, even for the kids on the right path now, so much can go wrong between 12 and 20. But just as the children’s destinies were changed by this project, so was Kauffman’s. He now works with Briski as part of Kids With Cameras (www.bornintobrothels.com), a nonprofit dedicated to earning money for the children’s education through the sale of their photos, as well as forming a school of “leadership and the arts” for kids of sex workers. He is still in daily contact with the kids: Puja, the fearless one, sends him text messages daily, “usually calling me some funny name.” Kauffman is happy to report that, in the time elapsed from the end of the film, four kids are enrolled in boarding school. They’ve earned more than $100,000 from sales of their photographs, certifying that money will be no obstacle to these kids obtaining an education. They’re all happy, and well, and loved. And, blessedly, none of them is in the line.