"Without help they're doomed," says co-director Zana Briski of the kids she encounters in Calcutta's wretched Sonagachi district, and Born Into Brothels movingly charts how it is possible to make a difference to lives that appear devoid of any hope. Shot on digital video over a period of several years, this unsentimentally compassionate film focusses on a group of neglected and impoverished youngsters, who display unexpected photographic abilities.
Briski herself admits that there isn't any logical reason for her to become involved in the plight of the sex-worker's offspring, but her decision to give them cameras and teach them the basics of photography proves to be a powerful catalyst. Having hitherto been denied any formal education, they prove to be enthusiastic and gifted students, and we accompany them on exhilarating day-trips away from their home ghetto to the seaside and the zoo, seeing the world from their perspective. Their work is exhibited in galleries and in an Amnesty International calendar, whilst interviews with them testify to the positive impact of creative expression on their own self-esteem.
"A HERCULEAN TASK"
If Born Into Brothels avoids casting its subjects as passive recipients of Western generosity, it also suggests the limits of external intervention, however well-intentioned. Briski manages to secure boarding school places for her charges, yet the end credits show that breaking away from Sonagachi, where 14-year-old girls are routinely expected to "join the line" of prostitution, remains a herculean task.