In 1998, London-born photographer Zana Briski moved into a room in Sonagachi, the red-light district of northern Calcutta and a neighborhood of the most squalid poverty imaginable. She intended to document the prostitutes who live from girlhood to old age ''on the line," standing in crowded alleys waiting for clients. The women only grudgingly let her into their lives; their kids, on the other hand, immediately took to the tall, curious Briski and her omnipresent lens. She decided to buy 10 point-and-shoot cameras and teach the children photography.
Made with codirector Ross Kauffman, ''Born Into Brothels" is Briski's record of what transpired, and it's an experience of soaring emotional highs and lows that makes the average Hollywood film look like the work of complacent fools. The film airs on HBO in March but is worth seeing at the Kendall Square Cinema. Hardnosed as it is, it's also worth taking older teenagers to. This is the kind of film that reminds you of what movies, at their best, are capable of.
Briski and Kauffman go easy on the noble intentions and steer clear of larger statements about third world poverty and exploitation. Instead, they focus on the children, who are funny, full of beans, and desperate to get out of the hellhole that is their lives. We quickly come to know them as individuals: Shy Kochi, bossy Shanti, prankish Manik, serious Gour, placid Suchitra. Two seem especially blessed with potential: the charismatic Puja, who serves as occasional narrator, and her friend, the chunky, sensitive Avijit.
''Born Into Brothels" spends time with each of these kids and then shows us their portfolios, and the miracle is that they all have specific ways of looking at the world. Well, of course, they do, everyone does, but the joy of these children in being able to frame and contain their worldview is infectious. By noticing their surroundings on film, they themselves are at last noticed, and the effect is liberating for them and, obliquely, for anyone watching them.
So Kochi's photographs reflect her quiet dignity, while Shanti's are dynamic with movement, and Manik's are as hectic and busy as he is. Avijit's are something else entirely, elegantly composed photographs of such prodigious natural skill that the need to get him into some place he can be taught takes on a greater urgency. Avijit's mother works on the line, and his father sells illegal liquor from their tiny apartment; he used to be a much-loved neighborhood presence but is now a drug addict who, at 40, looks 60. ''Even then, I try to love him a little," Avijit says.
''Born Into Brothels" doesn't flinch. It shows these children navigating a hopelessly ruined adult world, aware that their own time is running out. The girls have it the worst: They know only education will save them from the line and that no school in India will take the children of sex workers. (In most cases, their own families are pressuring them to take up prostitution as soon as possible.) But even the boys are burning. ''I take pictures to show how people in this city live," says Gour with stony disgust. ''I want to put across the behavior of men."
Briski brings the kids to the zoo and the beach for photo sessions; eventually, her mission becomes to get them into local private schools. ''Born Into Brothels" details her dealings with a bureaucracy beyond what the human mind can conceive while also filming a fund-raising exhibit of the kids' photos in New York. The looks on the children's faces as they watch videotape of wealthy Manhattanites viewing their work is priceless: The world has cracked open for them yet again.
There's a measure of suspense toward the end, as Avijit's chance to be part of a children's photo-editing panel in Amsterdam looks to evaporate after his mother dies in a mysterious fire (probably set by her pimp) and the boy sinks into depression. And even if Briski is able to secure schooling for some of the children, there's no assurance they'll stay or that dozens of other children won't fall through the cracks.
One does what one can. ''Born Into Brothels" dignifies a handful of children for a Western audience far beyond what a charity photo in a magazine can do. More important, it gives them a chance to record their world and thus gain some distance from and mastery over it. Most important of all, it opens the door to let some of them escape.
Some of the children's photos will be on display at the Kendall Square Cinema beginning today.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.