You know, there’s a lot to be said for insomnia. Some of my best thinking is done when I’m staring at the ceiling wishing it was my eyelids. I make good decisions during those times too. Mostly. Sometimes. Anyway…last night’s bout of sleeplessness had me scanning ABC iView for something to occupy my brain, and I stumbled across Born Into Brothels, a documentary about the children of prostitutes living in Calcutta’s red light district.
You may have already seen it given it’s ten years old. You might even know that it won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2004. I hadn’t and I didn’t because I’m hopelessly slow at watching movies and television (I still haven’t seen E.T. Really).
If you haven’t seen it, Born Into Brothels focuses on an American documentary photographer Zana Briski who initially travelled to Calcutta to photograph the prostitutes of Sonagachi, but ended up befriending the children and teaching them photography. Giving each child a camera and film, she sent them out to capture images of their daily lives. The result is a pastiche of inspiring, frustrating, overwhelming, disturbing, funny, insightful and genuinely touching moments as the children tell the story of their young lives through words and images.
These are highly intelligent, witty children with big brown soulful eyes that have seen more than enough depravity in only a decade of life, and their insights are heartbreaking. When a shy little ten year old called Kochi stares intently at her interviewer and says “my mother is a prostitute. I worry about what will become of me if I don’t get an education” it’s hard to resist getting sentimental. Had I been able to reach into the screen at that moment and wrap my arms around her, I probably would have choked the poor thing with the force of my emotions. These children are victims of a hideous situation, but they are not passive bystanders. They’re sharp and energetic and while the outcomes aren’t positive for all of them, the few that push through shine like zephyrs in the gloomy slum that makes up their world.
I doubt any other art form could have done for these children what photography did. Whether it was seeing themselves in print or the novelty of the camera itself, something about it sparked the imagination of this group of children who had only their minds with which to escape. It is a testament to the tenacity of both children and teacher that their viewfinders became full of not just their present surroundings, but their futures as well.
Not everyone was happy when Born Into Brothels was released, but I think it’s pretty special.
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Images taken from Kids With Cameras.