Born Into Saving Brothel Children

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, released theatrically in December 2004, won the 2005 Oscar for Best Documentary. The filmmakers describe their film as “A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes.” The film industry’s recognition of Born into Brothels should give us all pause. Rather than tell us something new about prostitutes in India, the filmmakers reiterate a very old story of heroic white westerners saving poor brown children who don’t know any better than to persist in their dead-end lives. The popularity of the film in the U.S. indicates its excellent uses of melodrama, its high production values, and its tight narrative. Unfortunately, this popularity also points to the fact that a very old and palatable tale is being told about prostitution, a tale in which prostitution and violence are synonymous, sex workers are unfit parents, and the only hope for children living in red light districts with their families is to be taken away from them by non-sex worker adults who necessarily know better.

The most astounding feat this film accomplishes is in giving such intimate details about life in Sonagachi, the red light district in Calcutta where the film takes place. Filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman, accompanied by local interpreters (who remain off-screen throughout) are able to capture footage of children walking around the area, of families at home watching TV, of girls fetching water from the local tap, and countless other details to a point which convinces the audience that we are actually seeing typical days in the life of the district. Unfortunately, this impression is formed by an insidious portrayal of interactions between children and adults that alternate between bewilderment, verbal abuse and, in one instance, violence. We may ask, are there no other interactions between adults and children here that are worth seeing? Are the white filmmakers the only adults that these children can rely upon for safety? Are all of the adults in Sonagachi morally corrupt individuals simply seeking to turn a profit through the bodies of their sons and daughters?

Partha Banerjee worked on the film as an interpreter. Upon seeing the final product, and then hearing that the film had won a nomination for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award people), Mr. Banerjee wrote a letter to AMPAS explaining why the film should not be so recognized. His letter addresses some of the questions raised by the film. In it, he writes,

…I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true. I visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them…At the same time, their sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously (were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in. …The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd. (February 1, 2005)

In fact, the prospect of portraying Sonagachi as a red light district with no active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), no history of activism regarding HIV/AIDS and trafficking, and no relationship with the local authorities is incredible. While not every sex worker in the area has been part of the success stories of local organizing, Sonagachi, in particular, has earned world renown through organizations like the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). The DMSC has been working in Sonagachi for more than a decade, and is seen as a model for improving health status and working conditions among sex workers. The HIV infection rate among sex workers in Calcutta is around 5%, which is especially significant in comparison with other red light areas in India. Other organizations working in the district, including Sanlaap, assisted the filmmakers in their project. However, Sanlaap workers were never identified clearly, and were instead portrayed as interpreters, school administrators, and were generally seen as part of the background against the ‘real’ story of the filmmakers mounting their rescue. The audience’s lasting impression is that, without Briski and Kaufmann, the people living in this district are without hope and options.

This film raises concerns about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, and recalls Gayatri Spivak’s and Chandra Mohanty’s arguments against orientalizing Indian women as helpless, exotic, and ‘other’ in relation to normative, empowered, white Western women. The film also raises policy concerns that are at the core of contemporary debates on prostitution and ‘trafficking in women.’ This debate has hovered around the juridical positions of legalization, criminalization, and decriminalization. The problem with the debate, and with the film, is that these positions are often taken under the assumption that criminalizing prostitution is the same thing as addressing its abuses. In fact, the criminalization of prostitution, a stance which the film advocates in its unilateral criticism of red light areas and prostitute-mothers as unsafe for children, fundamentally enhances the rights of governments to enforce laws however the local police see fit. On the ground, the criminalization of prostitution has meant that the police conduct brothel raids more frequently, families are separated through arrest, and women in prostitution are made to pay exorbitant fines and bribes for their release from police custody. There is little or no data substantiating a connection between the criminalization of prostitution and actually reducing the number of women who work as sex workers. This is hardly surprising, given that the criminalization of prostitution in no way addresses the structuring contexts of the sex industry. On the other hand, there are many arguments and data supporting formation of sex worker-led collectives and unions, as well as the decriminalization of sex work, as ways to reduce violence and health risks among people selling sexual services.

Broadly speaking, the issue of prostitution is also an issue of migration. Almost all sex workers are, after all, migrants from somewhere. By the same token, some anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution laws and policies are, in fact, part of anti-migrant legal strategies. In the case of Sonagachi, as is the case with most urban red light areas in South Asia, the majority of people selling sexual services there are from villages where they aimed to survive as landless agricultural workers. While some people may have been trafficked or brought to red light areas under false pretenses, a significant number passed through other kinds of work (e.g., building construction work and piece work manufacturing) before doing sex work. Most, if not all, sex workers in South Asia support families back in their villages through regular remittances. Born Into Brothels reiterates a generalized lack of interest in these and other structuring contexts for prostitution. Instead, it relates an old, familiar story of prostitution as inherently violent and immoral, of the need for well-intentioned Western saviors in South Asia, and of states as invisible and benign, and even, perhaps, helpless themselves.


I agree with some of the replies where they say that you have missed the idea of this documentary. I had to watch this documentary for a class, and as depressing as it was I still think it tried to shed light on how children want to be smart and can it be no matter what kind of conditions they live in. Yes of course one of the themes in this movie was prostitution but I definitely do not think this was the main idea of the documentary. If I am not mistaken, we do have prostitution in the United States, and even though it is not as harsh and the conditions are not as tragic as the ones in the Red Light District, there are children here that suffer just the same and deserve an education similar to the children from Calcutta. My point is that this documentary is not about prostitution or even the fact that you need a good education, but that there are many people in desperate situations and they need to be recognized by society and not just swept under the rug.
I was fortunate enough to watch this wonderful documentary on TV yesterday. I dont think your argument about the 'white saviours' washes very well in this day and age. When India is welcoming the 'white' multinationals with open arms making the rich richer and displacing millions of poor all over the country. When Americanism is blatant in all its ferver. If Mcdonalds and Pizza Hut and Subway and Baskin Robbins can make its way into India - why cant a 'white' journalist make her way into the country and do something non commercial for once. Introducing art to these kids and giving them a sense of worth overshadows any flaws that this documentary might have.
I don't think it's a matter of who gets the glory... I think the most important idea is that people grow an awareness of what is occuring not only in Calcutta but also all around the world.... Documentaries like these further motivate me to join organizations that fight for human rights. God bless you all.
I just find it ironic that these kids are now literally loved the world over and yet as far as I can tell one of them is now a prostitute and only 3 others are in good schools. How can we know them, see how their lives could be better and yet still be powerless to help?
"The most important work that is being done in Sonagachi is by local collectives of sex workers and Bengali NGOs, yet the filmmakers willfully excluded these collectives and NGOs from their documentary. Why? Obviously because showing that locals are doing the most important and meaningful work would detract from the theme that Westerners need to intervene in order to help the children. Why do liberal Westerners love this documentary so much? Obviously because it assuages their post colonial guilt about the ""bad"" interventions by Westerners in other part of the world, e.g. Iraq, etc. In fact, this documentary shows that liberal and conservative Westerners share many fundamental values when it comes to interventions in non-Western countries, i.e. present the locals as incapable of helping themselves, intervene to help them (especially the children), and react with self-righteous outrage when anyone suggests that there may be something neo-colonial about the whole thing."
Just saw the movie, and came to the web looking to validate my uneasiness with the film. Basically, it was shameless exploitation. The good liberals at Soethby's , or any number of rich benefactors milling around at the art shows, could have taken all these families out of the ghetto easily. Instead , we get some bizarre implications about 10 year olds making 'choices' at the end of the film, with a long take on the child who made the right choice and is now happy. The others deserve their plight, or so the film implies. More importantly, the filmmaker moves her career along nicely, while the real stars live in squalor.
"Svati P. Shah: Thanks you for this review. It helps put the movie in perspective. I loved the children and thier photographs. Do you know any more of the fate of the boy Gour who in the end of the movie was ""hoping to go to the university?"" This child's story seemed untold? Let me know if you know anything about him and Agit."
It is a complicated issue without easy solutions.
"Ironically, your analysis is an American one, more complex, provocative and compelling than Siskel and Ebert, but ultimately a thumbs-up or thumbs-down analysis. The film ""Born into Brothels"" is a wonderful tribute to the ability of children to create, regardless of their surroundings, a great beauty, revealing the potential life and spirit in their surroundings. The film also feeds the delusions of Western nations that they are on a righteous path, and are morally impelled to correct the path of non-Western nations. (A fact evident in a few of the posts.) In this sense the film becomes dangerous, validating Western ""interventions"", and the spread, with violence if necessary, of Global advanced capitalism. In fact, even priveledged Western schools would benefit incalculably from photography courses such as the one taught by Zana Briski, since we have all but lost our ability to see. The problem is not inhearent to poverty, India or prostitution at all. How can we penetrate daily life when we believe that art only exists outside of it? The banishment of art into leisure is the most devastating blow that Western culture has dealt to the world. In some way this film addresses that, if almost by accident. One contradictory aspect of the film, which is illustrative of my point, is that every child is able to produce photographs that empower them, give them joy and expression. Briski then undermines this by holding up one child as a ""true artist"", whose products are more masterly than the others, valuating the product over the process. But is this unusual or necessarily a negative editorial move? The clear message is heard first. It is a testament to Briski's view of art as a product and a process, and therefore valid in a documentary. Documentaries, like history, are not true, only a single vision. Thank you! Your article is a siren over the unquestioned applause for this film. (I happen to agree out of hand that an award from the Academy is reason for pause.) I only wanted to point out that a thing can be both beautiful and problematic, and that we needn't necessarily choose, especially in the realm of art. Best regards, Patrick Warren Vancouver, Canada"
"I agree with the comment that you missed the mark on this documentary. This movie was about how art (photography) helped these children see another world and the options available to them. Perhaps the local NGOs working in that area (especially now that Zana's documentary got attention to Sonagachi) could do a documentary about prostitution, poverty, and the other very serious, complex issues that give birth to places such as Sonagachi. I feel the need to comment as well on the comment that one person brought up in this forum about being angry that the parents took the children out of school. I have worked in less developed nations with children born into poverty and difficult lives. It is overly simplistic to judge these parents for taking their children out of the schools. In such situations, many times, parents cannot afford to give up the income that a child may bring into the household. Additionally, poverty ""institutionalizes"" its victims, where they are unable to really understand the benefits of an education, which, at times, is not often realized for a very long time. Lastly, in many less developed nations, after a young person completes their education, they often cannot find jobs. It is a complicated issue without easy solutions."
Dear Svati, The film is an attempt to look into the hurdles that exist in the way of a child from an area such as Sonagachi. The stigma of being the child of a prostitute is more than enough to destroy their lifes. It does not matter is she was white or otherwise, the film showed how frustrating it can be to bring about change in such circumstances even with the best of contacts and the finance. See the film for the children not for the promotion of the other organisations that are working on the issue. Regards
"i watched ""born in a brothel"" yesterday... grateful to be living in this privilaged time, country, city. grateful to be able to chose my living circumstances. grateful to be free. grateful to be able to go for a walk, to eat the food i need, to have a computer, to have cloths for the winter, to have shoes that fit, to have heat in my home in the winter and airconditioning in the summer, to be able to buy a newspaper, to have friends that see me for the truth of who i am, to have a healthy body, to do work i love, to have soap for my shower, to have clean water to drink, to have the ability to get to a doctor if i need to, to have such luxury items as toilet paper, paper towels, a working toilet, a place to bathe. i am very lucky. i am not better or different than a girl who is starving and being sold for prostitution, no better or different than a woman with aids in africa who has no treatment or even simple creature comforts such as a comfortable bed...and yet here i am typing with my manicured fingers on my ibook, drinking coffee with rice milk, about to go to the park... i have much more than i need, and not because there is anything that is more deserving about this form called tanya. that is just the way it is, and it is deeply humbling. i pray a true prayer to be used in service of all who suffer and are without what they need on the most basic levels. i pray for all to have the privilage of having at least one moment where survival isn't the primary concern in order that all may directly discover the peace, the true love, and unmoveable stillness that they are in the midst of the most horrific life circumstances. i'm yours."
After seeing this documentary at the movies (it was a school progect), I realized that I was so closed minded about the world that I'm living in. I was hurt because of what was being denied of the children, which was a education and the choice of being more than a female in the 'line'. I was angry because their parents made these children feel as if they had no other choice. I was upset because when Zana got some of the children in the schools, few of their parents took them away from the school. I cried after seeing this film and thanked God that I am living in a place of great opportunity.
I think you missed the mark completely. The movie wasn't about prostitution, it was about brilliant kids in a crappy situation. The theme of the movie is that brilliant minds can be found anywhere, not that prostitution should be criminalized. I never thought while watching the movie that it aimed to suggest they were the only people helping. It seemed to me that she was simply trying to give these amazing children options. She didn't push it on them, but she made them fully aware that these chances don't happen all the time. The fact that she is white (is she?) is irrelevant. She was there, she helped, you weren't, and you didn't. If there ARE moments of kindness and tenderness between the parents and the children that we didn't see in the film, it doesn't take away from the fact that the children were called cunts and bitches and were sold or forced into prostitution. You simply cannot justify something as disgusting as that. I'm sure even child molesters have good days. It doesn't take away from the fact that they are child molesters. Also, correct me if I'm wrong, but the movie tells what happens to the children after filming, and maybe only 2 or 3 of the situations seemed better. I can't remember the last time I had a crying fit like the one I had when I read about the outcomes of these beautiful children.
"I wish I could agree with what you are saying, maybe three years ago I would have but right now I cannot. I am in a poverty stricken neighborhood, that is doing far better than the Red Light district of Calcutta. But the fact of the matter is I was happy to see that someone brought the story into a mainstream society. I think the message portrayed was the mere word ""help"", not ""savior"". I am not white, or rich, nor am I an owner of several degrees; but I do know that people, Anglo-Saxon or Middle Eastern, need to step in an help nodes of the world who need to be mended. One thing that the documentary showed me was that somewhere in the world young women and men are in dire need of universal support, not just in Sudan or Somalia. I am an African American woman, a huge minority factor in this country, with no true avenues to excel unless I toil hard at what I do. A far better onset in life than the young women and men in Calcutta. For me to see that the children in this socitey have a lower percentage of survival than an orphaned minority child with HIV in America, made me fall apart at the seams, it made me want to do something...anything, I began searching the internet for an out source to places like this and I stumbled upon your site. What you are saying is accurate but douced with subconscious negativity. I understand your plight, but if someone has taken a chance to help and showed the world her story as a way to incorporate the masses into her mission, why is that exposed as ""Oh not another White Savior"" why can't we see it as someone saying, I want to assist, I have the resources, I will take the risk. Unfortunately, to some we hate that the person who took this on is white. This is a story I didn't have to dig for, it was in my face, if more people published their stories in easier formats many would listen. Applaud Zana, she opened a door into a country that the United States didn't think to exam properly, if it did I would see it on every milk carton, health food store display, or the 34th page of any mainstream editorial magazine. Her message reached far, in the inner city ghetto with nothing but hip hop and violence, I was able to sit an watch this and cry and want to do more, and then order the film for my family members to see. I think that is all Zana wanted, to send what she sees that is a start, isn't it?"
"thank you, svati, for articulating the ugliness of ""born into brothels."" i share your sentiments."

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