When Zana Briski would go off to India for six months at a time to live with the sex workers of the red light district in Calcutta, her boyfriend at the time, documentary filmmaker Ross Kauffman, had only a vague idea of what she was witnessing. As she tried to convince him that a film needed to be made about the people there, he declined the unenviable position of being a struggling artist in India. That is until she sent video home to Manhattan from halfway around the world.
“I was amazed by the footage and I was in Calcutta three weeks later,” says Mr. Kauffman, but their Oscar nominated documentary, “Born into Brothels,” which opens at Jacob Burns Film Center on February 18, came about more as a wrong turn than a scheduled stop.
Working as a photographer in India on women’s issues, a friend brought Ms. Briski for a visit to a red light district. “She was blown away,” says Mr. Kauffman, and felt not only as if she had been there before, but that she needed to understand these women and help them and their children in some way.
The process didn’t just mean using a handheld camera to document the unfolding tragedy for the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. Instead, Ms. Briski got to know the women and their children and built relationships with them over a two year period.
A film arose, along with a steep accumulation of credit card debt, as Ms. Briski was simply reacting to the situation around her, says Mr. Kauffman. She was responding to the children playing around with her cameras and persuading her to teach them photography.
Ms. Briski bought them point and shoot cameras and was really surprised by the quality of their work. “The photography, it really speaks for itself,” says Mr. Kauffman, and had it not been for the children’s talents, Ms. Briski might not have been compelled to make a film.
Her love for the children was unconditional, says Mr. Kauffman, but when combined with their talent and wide open way of seeing things, that’s what kept her there, he adds.
Therein lies the premise of the documentary. Photography gave the filmmakers the chance to capture the children expressing their feelings through the artistic outlet provided by the cameras. “There weren’t always terrible feelings,” says Mr. Kauffman. “They felt joy in things as much as the harshness.”
It might not seem possible, but since most of the mothers working in the brothels actually do love their children, it certainly leaves the youngsters the possibility of experiencing happiness like any other child. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, the mothers are just not always that capable, he says.
Either way, escaping the brothels remains a dim possibility for most of these children – until now. As Mr. Kauffman and Ms. Briski have showcased their film for audiences at festivals such as Sundance, they have included a traveling exhibition of the children’s work. Proceeds from the sales of that photography now exceeds more than $100,000 and it will go toward their education.
Even so, the filmmakers do not intend to leave the rest of Calcutta – or even the world – behind. They have started a foundation called Kids with Cameras in order to raise money to start a photography school for the children of sex workers in Calcutta and they have similar plans in the works for children in Haiti, Jerusalem, Cairo and Palestine.
Despite all the positive attention, though, Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman say they will never release “Born into Brothels” in the place where it might seem it would have the most impact – India. Because these children are stigmatized as the lowest of the low, “it would be difficult for them if we released it in India, says Mr. Kauffman, thus negating all their good work.
It might also make an already dangerous situation more tenuous for these children. There has been a limited effort to unionize the workers or possibly decriminalize the industry, but Mr. Kauffman feels nothing will ever come of it simply because, he says, “people are making money off of it.”
This doesn’t mean he and Ms. Briski aren’t hoping for an Oscar. Personally, it would be a lot of fun for him but more importantly, Mr. Kauffman sees an opportunity where, he says, “it would definitely widen the scope of what we are trying to do.”
From The Bedford Pound Ridge Record Review
Rich Monetti interview of Ross Kauffman