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Brutal ‘Brothels’ is a must-see film

Documentary looks at children of prostitutes in Calcutta
/ Source: The Associated Press

Similar to “Hotel Rwanda,” “Born Into Brothels” is a film that richly deserves to be seen, and yet it’s an incredibly hard sell.

How do you persuade people to dash out and watch a documentary about the children of prostitutes, living in squalor in Calcutta and seemingly doomed to their parents’ fate?

The Oscar nominee for best documentary feature is indeed as achingly sad as it sounds, featuring interviews with young boys and girls who are brutally candid and cynical beyond their years. And yet it has surprising moments that burst with beauty and joy, with inspiring resiliency and even hope.

Co-director Zana Briski, a London-born photographer, moved into the red-light district several years ago with the intention of documenting the lives of prostitutes there. Instead, she found herself becoming attached to their children.

You will, too. Even the shy ones seem delighted to be engaged in conversation, to have someone take an interest in them; the outgoing kids repeatedly prove themselves to be bright and insightful.

They all get a chance to express themselves, though, when Briski hands them point-and-shoot cameras, gives them a few lessons and asks them to capture their surroundings. The colors leap off the paper; the angles and shadows show unexpected maturity.

Perhaps the most promising of these pre-teen photographers is a boy named Avijit, with chubby cheeks and a great smile. He possesses an innate gift not only for composition and lighting, but also for offering eloquent critiques of other people’s work.

Avijit is also pragmatic about the bleakness of his lot in life. His father was once a respected man who’s now an emaciated hash addict; his mother eventually dies in a kitchen fire, presumably set by her pimp.

“One has to accept life as being sad and painful,” the moonfaced boy says matter-of-factly.

Similarly, sister and brother Shanti and Manik talk about playing on the roof while their mommy is downstairs “working in the room.”

And a pretty, talkative little girl named Kochi says at one point, “I worry that I might become like them.”

Briski worries about that, too. Much of the film is devoted to tracking her efforts to get these kids out of the slums and into private schools. Myriad obstacles stand in her way, including passport problems and rules prohibiting the admission of criminals’ children.

And although Briski clearly means well and spent years of her life working hard to help these kids, the film (which she co-directed with Ross Kauffman, a first for both) too often seems to be about her and her tireless crusade. At times, it almost borders on self-congratulation, and yet chronicling these children’s lives without taking any action would seem exploitative. Any human being would want to help.

One way Briski does this is by organizing field trips for the children — to the zoo, to the beach — to give them opportunities to snap more photographs and as a brief respite from their daily reality. The children chase each other along the sand and squeal with glee as the waves lap at their ankles and feet. For a moment, they are happy. They get to act like kids.

Briski and Kauffman, also functioning as cinematographers, shot these scenes and many others with the artful stylishness of a feature film. And yet what they’ve come up with is far more moving than any story Hollywood could have manufactured.