This 2004 film about prostitutes’ children in the red light district of Calcutta who learn photography from a British photojournalist picked up the Oscar for best documentary feature on Sunday night. I’d caught it the night before as it’s just now getting theatrical release in Chicago (pathetic!).
British-born, New York-based Zana Briski arrived in India in 1995 with the intention of documenting via photography the miserable lot in life that Indian women often face. As she writes in the film’s press kit, “I had no intention of photographing prostitutes until a friend took me to the red light district in Calcutta. From the moment I stepped foot inside that maze of alleyways, I knew that this was the reason I had come to India.”
“It was the children who accepted me immediately. They didn’t quite understand what I was doing there, but they were fascinated by me and my camera. I let them use it and showed them how to take pictures. I thought it would be great to see this world through their eyes. It was then that I decided to teach them photography…On my next trip I brought ten point-and-shoot cameras and selected a group of kids who were most eager to learn. I had no idea what I was doing, but the kids loved it and turned up to class every week. And the results were amazing.”
She began to videotape the workshops despite having no experience as a documentary filmmaker, and eventually enlisted veteran documentarian Ross Kaufman to co-direct. The result is this film.
What’s remarkable is that despite their squalid environs, the children retain their playful spirits. Occasionally, though, there is a sadness in their eyes, a worldy-wise expression that children shouldn’t have. In a few years the girls will go into their mothers’ line of work. As you watch, the sense of wanting to do something to stop them being exploited is palpable. That’s why it’s heartbreaking when the pull of the life proves inexorable for some of them.
The images the kids capture are often striking. I can’t put it any better than these words from the film’s press kit: “The photographs taken by the children are not merely examples of remarkable observation and talent; they reflect something much larger, morally encouraging, and even politically volatile: art as an immensely liberating and empowering force.”
The issue has been raised that these filmmakers have created this story and influenced the very events that they are covering. That’s 100% true and I say, good for them. It would be a shabby person indeed who would have maintained the air of journalistic detachment, “objectivity” be hanged.
I’ve also heard the charge that perhaps teaching the kids photography is not the most practical skill that they could have been taught. I find that I have no use for this argument. Briski is not a social worker or even a teacher, but she gave them what she had to offer.
Further, the organization that Braski formed, “Kids With Cameras”, is doing similar projects in Haiti, Egypt and Israel and is founding a school in Calcutta.
The organization’s website states:
“By teaching the art and skills of photography, Kids with Cameras empowers children growing up in difficult circumstances and allows them to appreciate the beauty and dignity of their own expression.”
“Kids with Cameras is founding a school for the disenfranchised children of the Calcutta brothels… Briski is mounting a campaign to provide a combined educational and residential facility for the children whose lives were touched by the workshops and for children like them…The Home and School will provide a safe space for learning and expression, away from the dangers and degradation of the city's red light district. We will empower the city's forgotten children by encouraging rigorous academic excellence, leadership qualities, participation in sports activities and studies of the arts. We will promote unity, social inclusion and environmental responsibility, and provide an educational and cultural framework for children to change their own circumstances. We will create a new generation of stewards of the planet.”
If you’d like to look at the some of the children’s photographs, I’ve deposited the following link:
Aside from the Oscar, this film has won 17 film festival awards.
- Mar 4, 2005