The residents of Calcutta’s Sonagchi quarter are no strangers to hardship. The infamous red-light district is home to thousands of impoverished sex workers — families so poor that their children must begin contributing to the household income at the age of four. But even that background information isn’t adequate preparation for the sight of ten-year-old Tapasi, shrugging at her family’s day-to-day struggle with a world-weary sigh one shouldn’t develop until after 40. “One has to accept life as being sad and painful,” she says simply — and in a place where puberty is considered adulthood, it’s clear why she believes it.

“Born Into Brothels,” this year’s Oscar winner for Best Documentary, follows British photographer Zana Briski as she moves into the Sonagchi community. Though she originally aims to better understand the district’s inhabitants, Briski’s focus soon shifts to their children, who scamper about curiously in the wake of her cameras with an openness their parents are reluctant to show in front of a white outsider. The film’s cast of bright, lively children still has a future that can be saved, and the purpose behind Briski’s passion becomes clear — to keep these kids from also “joining the line.”

Each child is given a camera in hopes that a new outlet for creativity and self-expression will not only raise the children’s spirits but also help get them into school. The photos they produce are surprisingly good: While some even border on professional quality, each pulses with a candor that gives new vitality to Sonagchi’s squalor, introducing a child’s view of its plight. The kids become a dedicated little troupe of photographers, snapping shots of their surroundings with happy abandon and delighting in the proof sheets Briski brings them to evaluate.

Until the cameras follow them home, in fact, this might be any group of kids, sitting around Briski’s classroom with teases flying and siblings squabbling. But their real world is centered around cramped, often filthy home lives, in which prostitution marks as many as three generations. One father very nearly sold away his nine-year-old girl, while another does little more in an interview than dully rock back and forth in a hashish-induced stupor. And the death of one boy’s mother, deemed a “kitchen accident,” is actually the result of her drunken pimp lighting her on fire.

The film wisely refuses to rely merely on the doe-eyed cuteness of its subjects for effect, instead finding meaningful poignancy in the children’s thin-mouthed understanding of their poverty and little expectation for more. That the inhabitants of Sonagchi appear for the most part to accept this existence for themselves and their children becomes a source of maddening frustration for Briski, as does the convoluted Indian bureaucracy’s lack of sympathy. She goes from one government office to another in a wild goose chase for signatures to secure the kids’ schooling, despite the sense of futility that lingers about the process every step of the way. Even if these kids do attend school, one cannot help but notice how many others fill the streets of Sonagchi.

With a helpless tone, Tapasi says that it’s her duty to stay and work in the red-light district to help support her new baby sister. The film’s addendum reveals that Tapasi eventually runs away. What is never revealed and never discussed is the fate of the baby sister she leaves behind — and all the others left in Sonagchi to ultimately join the line.

Music Review: 4 out of 5 stars

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