Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids is a Documentary film released in 2004 and directed by Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman. Eight kids born in a prostitution area of Kolkata take photography classes.

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Hello, there! I’m dos Santos, and this is Ulven Reviews, with Movies and series from all over the world and all eras. Today let’s talk about Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids.

This video is part of the Oscars Badge Series. To know more, you can watch the video in which I introduce the series.

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“Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” was the winner of the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005.

British photographer Zana Briski documents her time giving photography classes to a group of kids in a red-light district. The kids are Kochi, Shanti, Avijit, Suchitra, Manik, Gour, Puja and Tapasi.

We also observe Zana’s attachment to the kids and her search for a boarding school for them.

The first thing I have to say is that we won’t talk about the lives of the kids (now adults) nowadays. They’re regular people like most of us, so I don’t feel comfortable talking about them or exposing their personal lives. So, let’s get straight to the documentary.

Intending to photograph the routine of sex workers, Zana Briski, the documentary’s co-director, went to the Sonagachi neighborhood in Kolkata, India. Sonagachi is the largest Red-Light district of Asia, with around 7 thousand workers before the COVID-19 pandemic.

The vast amount of children in Sonagachi drew the woman’s attention, and soon she began teaching photography to them. She gave each of the kids a camera and encouraged them to take pictures of their surroundings, which they did quite well.

With the help of an interpreter (Partha Banerjee), the filmmakers conduct interviews with the children and their families. This way, we can have a better understanding of their realities and their personalities.

It really works. Through these interviews, especially with the kids themselves, we can empathize with them. I think it’s fundamental for the audience to feel for them as individuals, not only as a group of rando, default kids. The emotional impact of the documentary is more effective this way.

Faced with the possibility of some of those kids going in a rough direction, the English woman starts going after boarding schools for them. The boarding school would not only provide good quality education but also would remove them from the neighborhood.

Although I really love Indian movies and series, I never saw the depiction of prostitution so openly in any of them, at least as far as I remember. There are some things in Sacred Games, but I’ll talk about them when I review the fictional series.

The point is that I was very ignorant about prostitution in India, and I still am, but slightly less than before. I did some research after, as well, to expand my knowledge on the theme.

The documentary is not about prostitution itself, but it’s a fundamental topic permeating it. Although prostitution is legal in India, many other things happening around it in Sonagachi are not. The worst of all, the prostitution of minors and human trafficking.

Not counting the legality issue, usually, the girls (minor or not) are not in the profession by choice. They are forced into prostitution, explored by PIMPs, and to endure it, they abuse alcohol and drugs.

In the case of the documentary, we see generations upon generations of women of the same family driven into the profession. It’s a clear cycle, it’s not the women’s fault, and it’s important to say that the documentary never implied it so.

It’s extremely difficult to get out of this kind of cycle. Individual effort alone is not enough, despite what the capitalist ideology tries to tell us. One fundamental ingredient for breaking the cycle is opportunities. That’s what Zana was trying to give the kids when finding boarding schools for them.

That’s when she gets into the white savior realm that many people criticized. I agree it’s very white savior-y of her part, but I also understand that getting in contact with children in social vulnerability you’re compelled to do something about it.

I come from a working-class family from Latin American, where I’ve lived for my whole life and where I worked with vulnerable children. To some extent, the reality displayed in the documentary is known to me, considering the particularities of each region.

All of us from Latin America, Africa, India, and etcetera are not deserving of being looked down upon. Maybe that’s what it felt like for some people to see a white woman, to be even worse, a British one, trying to “save” these Indian kids.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I understand both sides of the argument, but understanding it doesn’t mean I completely agree with Zana’s approach. I think her role with the Kids with Cameras is already beautiful enough.

By the way, locally, there are also other mechanisms to protect the community. Sonagachi has many active NGOs helping the kids, helping the sex workers, and so on. Some of these organizations even helped Briski and Kauffman in their efforts inside the community.

The cinematography was not very good. The duo of directors rely too much on close-ups, the framing is sub-par, the camera work is too shaky. The result is a very visually confusing and unappealing movie. The best thing visually, BY FAR, is the children’s photographs.

Lastly, did it deserve to win the Oscar? I can’t say 100% for sure because I didn’t watch all of the other nominees, but considering only those I did, I would say: Yes, it did. And that’s saying a lot, considering I love Tupac.

“Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” is a very touching film, it’s still relevant 17 years after its release, and stayed on my head for weeks after watching it. Although it has some flaws, especially the White Savior complex, it is mostly a positive experience and a fundamental watch. I’ll give “Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids” 8 Moons.

That’s it for now.

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