Documentary photographer Zana Briski journeyed into Calcutta’s underworld to photograph the city’s prostitutes. In return, she offered to teach the prostitutes’ children the basics of photography so that the kids could document their own lives on the streets of one of the world’s poorest cities. The resulting photographs, often astonishing, were exhibited around the world; many of them are seen in this film, which won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2005.
User Reviews: It would certainly take a filmmaker of much self-consciousness, something which Zana Briski certainly possesses, to make this film the way she has. Having met with uncooperative roadblocks to shooting a documentary about sex-workers and their families within the squalid confines of Calcutta’s red-light district, Briski states early on that she decides to have the children themselves tell their story by supplying them with automatic cameras to use in their own personal ways. The film, however, ultimately becomes an account of one outsider’s attempt to save these children from their miserable fates – poverty and sexual abuse. With the children’s sex-worker mothers and families, many of whom have apparently spent generations in the district with no escape in sight, used as background elements, Briski focuses solely on the children, entering them into an informal photography seminar where they gather to share contact sheets of their pictures and discuss the problems of shooting amidst uncooperative and hostile subjects and why certain pictures work and why some don’t. Thankfully, Briski also interviews the children, and while it’s not clear they understand her theories on picture composition, they are, despite being denied education and living amidst fairly brutal conditions of abuse, poverty and indentured servitude, very perceptive and wise to the unfortunate conditions in which they live, their prospects and possess an awareness of the possibilities of life outside of the district. Briski becomes further involved with the children by trying to enter them into school, though most will not accept them because they are the children of sex workers. Indeed, it is the indifference of Indian authorities to the children’s plight as much as the abuse they receive from their depraved parents that shocks the viewer. Briski, with some help from some photographic arts people in the United States and Amnesty International, is able to use the children’s pictures as a commercial vehicle to raise money to enable them to enroll in a private boarding school (the kids are well aware that education is their only way out of the brothels). Here, Briski’s movement somewhat takes over the movie from her subjects, proving how futile western notions of compassionate aid often are to endemic and grave third-world situations like we witness here. This is driven home when of the kids accepted into the boarding school, only one eventually remains because of the economic pressures put upon their families in which the children essentially act as indentured servants, performing household tasks day and night and odd jobs for additional income. So, while the film becomes a parade for Briski’s noble cause, I would have liked to have seen more background and interaction between the children and their surroundings, other than simply as child photographers who have been given a brief and, for most of them, fleeting reprieve from their depraved surroundings.