American filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's went to Calcutta to make a documentary about prostitution, a technically illegal but almost utterly unchecked Indian profession. Not surprisingly, they could find almost no one willing to cooperate with them. What they did find was a group of curious children. Briski got the idea of getting the children to take pictures she wasn't allowed to take herself. So she bought cameras for the children and taught them how to frame a shot. The children took pictures of their friends, neighbors, family members and squalid homes. And the filmmakers' documentary became a study of the children rather than their mothers.
As she got to know them, Briski became more and more involved with the children -- we meet eight of them, five girls and three boys. Her on-camera interviews with them reveal a shocking awareness of their circumstances coupled with an utter resignation. Manik states that he knows other people don't live as he is forced to. "We live in filth," he says. "But others don't." But neither Manik nor any of the others have a clue about how to escape. They know education might free them. But the kind of education they need is unavailable. What schooling they have (and the film is murky about this) will end when they hit puberty and they go "on the line." And indeed, even while the documentary is being filmed, beautiful 14-year-old Suchitra is forced by her aunt to begin selling herself. Briski asks her if she can imagine escaping such a life, and as if anesthetized, Suchrita shrugs that she cannot.
Eventually, Briski stops being an observer and becomes an advocate. She tries to get the children into boarding schools where they will be distant from their relatives in the prostitution business. To raise money for this venture, Briski stages an exhibition of the children's photography. And here the film reaches its emotional zenith. For fleeting moments, these kids from darkness rise into light. Their pictures appear in the paper. They are greeted and praised. And their wonder and pride at being momentarily famous and accomplished is giddily hopeful. The most talented of the group, a boy named Avijit, wins an international photography prize and with it a trip to a photography fair in Amsterdam.
But immediately the film becomes a journey into the nightmarish world of Indian bureaucracy. Briski can't get a passport for Avijit. Even with adequate funding in place for boarding school, all the kids need papers they don't have, school records that haven't been kept or won't be released, and immunizations they've never received. Eventually, authorities demand that all be tested for HIV. But even when the bureaucratic hurdles have been leapt and Briski finds a school willing to accept some of the children, she cannot count on their parents and guardians to let them go. She can't even count on the children to make the leap. Avijit's mother is burned to death by her pimp, a crime for which he won't even be scolded, much less arrested and prosecuted, and Avijit plummets into a despair he tries to mask with an attitude of flip indifference.
Affecting as it ultimately is, Born Into Brothels is not entirely satisfying. And in the end it is more successful as a piece of sad sociology than it is as a film. Briski and Kauffman endeavor but do not succeed at distinguishing the children as individuals. We can eventually identify Avijit and Suchitra, but, in a single viewing anyway, we can never separate the stories of the other four girls. We know little more than the names of the other two boys. And whereas it is understandable that Briski and Kauffman wanted to honor the children's photography, its extensive display comes at the expense of knowing the children better. I am sure that lack of cooperation by the adults made the filmmakers' storytelling difficult at every turn, but as the story reaches its climax, we possess too frustratingly little background information to appreciate the revelations about what happens to each child, who goes to school and who is kept out, who stays in school, who is taken out of school and who leaves of her own accord. These are determinative complications demanding an exploration that the filmmakers did not, perhaps could not, deliver.