Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s Born into Brothels, nominated for the Best Documentary Oscar, underachieves when it comes to its subject matter, failing to put its characters in a larger context and not engaging us in its story nearly as much as a movie about destitute but adorable children could have. But as a challenge to the accepted conventions of the genre and an active questioning of the role of the documentary filmmaker, it is fascinating. It seems odd to endorse a movie that doesn’t really succeed at what it’s trying to do, but there is undeniably value here, if not of the sort one would expect.
They say it’s impossible to observe something without affecting it — Heisenberg Uncertainty principle, and all that. To what extent documentarians can/should get involved in the lives of their subjects and the events they are chronicling has long been both an ethical and aesthetic question. Personally, I’ve loved what I’ve seen of the cinema verite camp; the best recent example is probably the wonderful To Be and to Have. Briski, the co-director and nominal protagonist of Born into Brothels rejects this approach as emphatically as she possibly can.
So involved is Briski in the lives of her subjects — kids living in the slums and brothels of India, the girls destined for prostitution — that it threatens, at points, to become her story instead of theirs. At first, she simply teaches them photography and does her best to understand them; in the last half of the film, however, she goes on the offensive, trying to place them in schools and give them a future. If you think this has the potential to become a narcissistic endeavor, you’re right: when the camera trains its eye on a pleading Briski, one can’t help but get the feeling that she is rather pleased with herself.
But the movie is patient and generous, too, giving screen time to the kids’ photography, letting them expound on their hopes and dreams. They are heartbreakingly resilient children, candid about what the world sees as their fates, eager to get out but terrified of it, too. Their families aren’t always cooperative; at one point, a grandmother almost sends Briski’s plans crashing down because she is convinced that going out on a Thursday will bring misfortune. Most of the parents seem to have the kids’ best interests at heart, though seemingly not all.
A problem is that the film’s focus is both too broad and too narrow: too broad in its deluge of characters, preventing us from truly getting to know any of them, and too narrow in its staunch refusal to go outside the lives and homes of these specific children. It is not necessarily the job of a movie like this to provide a general education on the state of prostitution in Calcutta, but by utterly isolating its subject matter from the rest of the world, it robs itself of the impact it could have had.
But I was fascinated by how Born into Brothels seems to reveal more about the filmmaker than about what she is filming, and by the way the movie itself develops a sense of purpose as it goes along. It is true that I have more of an academic affinity for it than anything else, but there’s not necessarily anything wrong with that. When I say that I want to see something interesting, I rarely specify what kind of “interesting” I am looking for.