Zana Briski is soft-spoken and rather shy of manner. Willowy of frame, stout of spirit and compassionate of heart, she naturally possesses the qualities shared by the best photojournalists. But even by the standards of that difficult craft, the assignment she imposed on herself a few years ago was formidable. She would live in the brothels of Calcutta, India, and record the lives of their inhabitants, particularly the prostitutes' children.
It took Briski months to overcome the suspicions of the hookers and their hangers-on. The kids--bright, cheerful, curious--were easier. She passed out simple point-and-shoot cameras and offered rudimentary instruction in the art of photography. Her Oscar-nominated documentary, Born into Brothels, which she made with Ross Kauffman, offers an astonishing record of her technique's success--and its limits.
Taken together, the children's photos form a surprisingly sophisticated chronicle of their daily lives. In their hands, the camera becomes an instrument that allows the children to step outside their lives and peer back in at them. In turn, that allows them to contemplate alternatives to their hopelessness.
Briski, who is almost as much the film's subject as the children are, is seen arranging interviews for them at schools that offer opportunities to leave the brothels. But the mothers are not universally encouraging about escape. They seem to believe that this brutal, poverty-stricken life is all their offspring deserve.
In the end, only about half the children get out. The rest have apparently sunk back into hopelessness. For her part, Briski keeps trying. She has a foundation. She has her passion for righteousness. And now she has this very moving film, which at the least must awaken our compassion and, perhaps, our donations. The question is, Can it awaken the imagination of the mothers of these children, encourage them to let them go, let them grow? --By Richard Schickel