Born Into Brothels movie poster
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Born Into Brothels movie poster

Born Into Brothels Movie Review

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The winner for Best Documentary at this year's Academy Awards, "Born Into Brothels" takes a look at the sad state of things in the red district of a city in Sonagchi, Calcutta, where children live in chaos and, with little hope of ever escaping, are likely to become criminals and prostitutes. It's pointless to say that it didn't take much to make this one of the most tragic and captivating documentaries in recent years.

Now, I've been determined to inject more humor and sarcasm into my reviews, but considering the subject matter I better play it pretty straight... so bear with me. "Born Into Brothels" is a wonderful documentary, a film that shows a form of Hell, but also shows the happiness that can exist in Hell (and of course the happiness that is probably going to be corrupted as the children grow older). The movie follows photojournalist Zana Briski, an American, as she becomes intimately connected with a group of children in a photography class. The kids seem to have a wonderful time playing with their cameras and actually produce some absolutely superb photos; one child is even selected to travel to Amsterdam to visit a photo show. Furthermore, most of the kids come off as bright, headstrong individuals who in many other countries would thrive, but here are stuck in a cycle of eternal damnation. Their mothers and fathers are primarily criminals and prostitutes, and while many of the parents do care for their children, economic concerns both keep the kids out of school and means that they could eventually be a source of income. Briski, well aware of their fate, tries to do everything in her power to get the kids out of their neighborhood, by pursuing open spots in boarding schools, working with backlogged offices to get proper documentation and even setting up full-scale photo galleries around the world. Even then, though, Briski finds it difficult to get the kids out of their homes.

"Born Into Brothels" is at once a celebration of childhood, a critical look at India's lack of action regarding poor children, a showcase of photography and a tragic tale of inevitable fate. It blends all these themes together flawlessly.

Every kid is a joy to watch. One is an absolute natural at photography; several of the others take pictures that, given the right camera and experience, could make it onto the cover of National Geographic (the picture of the girl standing in front of the blue wall remains in my memory the longest). All of the children are well-spoken, especially a couple of the girls. Sadly, they are also mature beyond their years. While they make the best of their situation, they know what miserable surroundings they live in and that they are most likely to remain in those conditions their entire lives.

Surprisingly, Briski and co-director Ross Kauffman show very little in the way of the red light district, aside from a few shots of women standing on the corner. The allusion to prostitution is made many times, but "Born Into Brothels" shows very little of what makes the red light district so distinct. And this is the one flaw about the movie; while I understand where these kids come from, it's hard to distinguish this place from a hundred other poor areas of the world. The saddest parts of the movie are where neighbors and parents are shown cursing out their children with the worst of profanities, but even still I don't think the directors adequately showed the true conditions these children live in.

Regardless, even the Grinch would feel some sadness for these children. It doesn't take much heart to look at these kids and picture them in only a few years time losing their innocence and hope. Even though at least some of the parents love their kids, it isn't economically viable for them to keep them in school when they could be out on the streets making money. It's the sad truth, and a truth that the directors don't overlook.

"Born Into Brothels" is one of the most interesting documentaries of this century. It's not without a few flaws, but its blend of hopeless doom and the uplifting innocence of the children make it a worthwhile feat. Now out on DVD, the film comes with an extraordinary amount of features for a documentary, including deleted scenes, interviews, the Academy Award acceptance speech, a director's commentary and, perhaps most interesting, a video commentary on selected scene by the children stars. Another important feature is a short feature that reconnects the filmmakers with the kids three years later; most are now in high school and appear to be doing quite well, but it's pretty neat to see what the children are up to nowadays (and happy to see that they are not working the streets).

Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.

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