A review of “Born into Brothels” by Jeanne Aufmuth


Stars: ***

Rating: R for language and disturbing images.  In Bengali and English with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 28 minutes



It always comes down to the children.  Bent on documenting the mysterious women of Northern Calcutta’s red light district, New York-based photojournalist Zana Briski unexpectedly falls for the young sons and daughters of the women of the night. Thus an Oscar-nominated documentary is born.

Briski sets out to explore the underbelly of India’s flourishing prostitution industry, angling to visually dissect the ancient art of sex for money.  But what of the children living amongst the squalor, pimps, and drug addicts? And what of the cultural expectations that dictate they will follow in their mothers’ footsteps?

The youngsters in question – Shanti, Manik, Avijit, etc. -- are bright, inquisitive and unnervingly wise beyond their years. Though subjected to a daily diet of harsh reality they are uncommonly brave and pragmatic. A helpless Briski lends a hand the only way she knows how, by putting cameras into the kids’ hands and asking them to document what they see.

Their artistic talents are astounding; profound, mature and overflowing with feeling.  With the help of a trusted friend Briski arranges for a photo exhibition in New York City, the proceeds of which will go towards an education fund.  She works tirelessly teaching the kids’ her art while futilely attempting to cut through government red tape to arrange for official papers, proper schooling and a chance at life.

Emotions run high and the children are endlessly engaging, their palpable desperation masked by childlike cheer. Briski manages to avoid self-congratulation for her good works, but the subtle whiff of manipulation (bringing human suffering into the living rooms and theaters of the privileged) threatens to nudge this poignant doc into saccharine territory.

Brothels is just what Oscar loves; borne of tragedy and working with unflagging energy to triumph over the odds.  In a lackluster Best Documentary category that completely dismisses such outstanding films as Touching the Void, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster and Tarnation, Brothels’ only serious competition is the wryly humorous Super-Size Me. And the award goes to….