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Photographic memory

Oscar winning documentary Born Into Brothels screening in Whistler

What: Born Into Brothels – Whistler Film Festival Society’s Reel Alternatives cinema series

Where: Village 8 Cinema

When: Wednesday, May 25, 7 and 9:30 p.m.

Tickets: $9

In movie-land the May long weekend has established itself as the official kick-off for summer blockbuster popcorn-movie mania.

This year is no exception. On Thursday, May 19 the blockbuster of all blockbusters — Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith — descends on Whistler, heralding a coming onslaught of superhero adaptations, rough and tumble buddy flicks and pithy romantic comedies starring whichever lowest common denominatrix happens to be on People Mag’s hot-list that week.

All the shoot-’em-up, bash-’em-up, whoop-it-up Hollywood fare audiences can cram down their fun-seeking summertime throats. Escapism of the guilty-pleasure variety with every ticket.

But the week ahead presents an exception.

When the smoke clears from the long weekend kick-off ka-boom, a remarkable film will have come softly, its pensive theme of escaping from the shackles of poverty a foil to the hedonistic escapism of Hollywood’s most expensive.

That film is acclaimed feature documentary Born Into Brothels, which screens twice on Wednesday evening as the May installment in the Whistler Film Festival Society’s Reel Alternatives monthly cinema series.

Oscar watchers will recognize the film’s title and directorial team Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman from Born Into Brothels Best Documentary win at the 77 th Annual Academy Awards this past February. The award capped off a long list of accolades including the Documentary Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival, where the film premiered in January 2004.

Briski herself is a subject of Born Into Brothels.

A photojournalist based in New York City, Briski traveled to India in 1998 to live amongst and document the lives of the prostitutes living in the squalor of Calcutta’s red light district.

She and her camera were objects of curiosity for the district’s children and in befriending them Briski was inspired to teach them photography, setting each up with a basic point-and-shoot camera and instilling in them basics of composition, light, and photo editing. It’s at this point the film picks up their stories.

Briski is certainly a key figure, but the film really belongs to the eight under her tutelage. The children range in age from 10 years old to 14-year-old Suchitra, a demure figure living with the knowledge that she is of the age where any day she could be forced to earn her keep by "joining the line." It’s a future spelled out plainly by another of the girls who is simply a few years behind. To avoid recruitment Suchitra rarely leaves the roof of her home.

The children are all compelling people — a mishmash of personalities and quirks, all genuinely excited to learn, experiment and excel at the medium of photography. They’re a paradoxical bunch: at once world weary and old beyond their years, but at the same time precocious moppets with dark eyes full of idealistic wonder.

Irrepressible characters emerge like 11-year-old Puja, a live wire who ventures into the street fearlessly sticking her camera where she sees fit. Ten-year-old Manik, a kite-flying aficionado, spars affectionately with his 11-year-old sister Shanti. Thirteen-year-old Gour displays an innate sensitivity, which he spells out in his lofty artistic credo: "I want to show in pictures how people live in this city. I want to put across the behaviour of man."

Briski and Kauffman make effective use of the children’s still shots in the film. All are undeniably good. These kids are gifted photographers, not charity cases. Their unique perspective on their surroundings only enhances their developing art.

The film shows the group as a whole leaving the slum on two occasions — photographic field trips to the zoo and the ocean. The vivacious bunch embraces the ocean like kids anywhere would, but is sobered at the zoo, the familiar knowledge of what it’s like to be caged in one’s surroundings too raw to inspire delight.

With her extensive photojournalistic contacts Briski proves an effective manager of her group’s talent. Their work gets a gallery exhibition at an Oxford bookstore that draws a well-dressed multi-national crowd and the Indian TV news, and is appropriated by Amnesty International for calendars.

A crowning glory is when the exceptionally talented Avijit, a 12-year-old with a cool demeanour and a protective swagger, is invited to join the Children’s Jury at the 2002 World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam. Getting him there is a far less glorious undertaking.

Unlike a photograph, life does not stand still. Looking at the children’s pictures is nice, but the strength of Born Into Brothels is in its daring to address what will become of this group.

The girls’ situation in the brothels is a running thread, alluded to in nauseating scenes where tricks are followed through labyrinthine alleys.

The boys are equally at risk, a life of crime or addiction imminent. The only way out for these children is enrolment in a quality boarding school, which Briski attempts to arrange, but is challenged at every bureaucratic misstep due to the reluctance of reputable educational facilities to admit children of prostitutes. Even so, Briski forges ahead, enduring the frustrations brought on by a loopy clerical system, going so far as to arrange for compulsory medical tests to determine whether or not any are carriers of HIV.

The spectre of entrapment hangs over every ambition, suggested by a haunting establishing shot of a toddler chained to a wall by his leg.

Who will make it out? Who will be discarded back into the brothels? Who will one day tell the story of how photography opened a new world of possibility? And who will one day sit in the same squalid rooms, camera smashed by a violent pimp like the one that set Avijit’s mother on fire, wondering what happened to the woman they once called Zana Auntie?

The epilogue is bittersweet. Some make steps to suggest a hopeful and promising future, while others fall back down, held back by familial pressure.

Born Into Brothels refuses to tug any heartstrings, despite subject matter prime for emotional exploitation. Even so, it has the power to make hearts soar with the displayed artistic genius and bleed for the injustice of the children’s situation. It’s a remarkable cinematic work and its uncompromising images remain long after the credits fade from the screen. Like the best photographs, it creates a resonance far greater than that of the biggest blockbuster.

Born Into Brothels screens in Whistler on Wednesday, May 25 at 7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. at Village 8 Cinemas. Tickets are $9, available at the box office on the day of the screening and in advance at Nesters Market. For more information on the Whistler Film Festival Society’s Reel Alternatives monthly cinema series go to festival website


Kids With Cameras continues director’s vision

Zana Briski’s work in the Calcutta brothels, as documented in Born Into Brothels, has spawned Kids With Cameras — a non-profit organization that teaches the art of photography to marginalized children in communities around the world. The organization aims to "use photography to capture the imaginations of children, to empower them, building confidence, self-esteem and hope."

A gallery of works by the Born Into Brothels cast is available on the Kids With Cameras website at The organization offers prints for sale with 100 per cent of net proceeds going directly to the children’s education.