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Arts & Culture

Indian Film Festival: Born into Brothels

ZANA BRISKI: " They were all over me and I would play with them and take their photographs and they would take mine and they wanted to learn how to use the camera and that's when I thought it would be great to teach them and to see the world through their eyes."

Working with a small group of children, Briski began to teach them how to use a camera.

Z ANA BRISKI: "When you hold the camera, take your time to look..."[kids talking]


ZANA BRISKI: "The camera is a tremendously empowering tool and I didn't know that before this project, I was just responding to the kids who wanted to learn photography and I really saw first hand how they grew in self-esteem and self-confidence, and they were able to express their points of view and share their vision with peers and to others around the world, and it's just been a remarkable process."

That process was documented by Briski and Ross Kaufman in the film Born into Brothels. Briski and Kaufman are part of a new breed of documentary filmmakers who reject talking heads and journalistic objectivity for something more intimate and engaging.

ZANA BRISKI: "I think people are taking more risks and they are making stories personal whereas before there was supposed to be this objective view. Personally, I think the personal approach is or can be more interesting, and it seems to be reaching people. Documentaries are getting more popular."

In the case of Born into Brothels , the filmmakers themselves are part of the story. The film not only offers a portrait of children living in dire conditions but also shows the positive impact Briski has made on some of her students. The first half of the film uses the children's photographs as a window to their world. The second half documents Briski's efforts to enroll them in schools and get a passport so one particularly gifted student can travel.

ZANA: "Avijit, where are you going?"
AVIJIT: "To Amsterdam."
ZANA: "Are you excited?"
AVIJIT: "Yes."


The exuberance of these children despite their desperate circumstances, wins audiences over just as it won over the filmmakers. Ross Kaufman says he and Briski have made a lifelong commitment to these kids.

ROSS KAUFMAN: "We'll be in touch with these kids for a long time and it's just going to be a part of our lives."

The filmmakers are selling copies of the children's photos to raise money for their education. Briski has also established an organization called Kids with Cameras. She says the goal is to empower marginalized children by teaching them the art of photography. Which is exactly what happened with the kids in the film.

ZANA BRISKI: "In a way it could have been anything and the kids were responding to the attention and love I was giving them, but photography is a really special tool because it allows the kids to reflect on their own world to see their own world and present their visions to other people, and to have a lot of fun, just the act of taking photos is always fun and to go on trips to see other worlds as well as their own world so I do think it's a very special tool."

Born into Brothels is a testament to the power of art as a catalyst for positive change. Briski hopes that the success of the film will encourage better arts funding around the world. The film is being distributed in several countries. But Briski says India won't be one of them.

ZANA BRISKI: "The kids haven't seen the film so far, but we will show them the film. But I did promise the women and the children that we wouldn't show the film in India to protect their identities."

This bond of trust between the filmmakers and their subjects exemplifies the kind of personal involvement that many documentary makers are striving for these days. With Born into Brothels, Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman weren't just concerned with making a good film. They're also looking out for the people involved.