Zana Briski, a New York-based photojournalist, was documenting the life of prostitutes in Calcutta's red light district when she came up with the idea of starting a photography class for a group of their children something that she hoped would inspire the young ones to record their lives from their own points of view. The children, aged 10 to 14, proved talented; one boy in particular was so consistently adept that he was chosen to represent the children at an exhibition at the World Press Photo Foundation in Amsterdam.
The crux of Born Into Brothels, which Briski co-directed with Ross Kauffman, concerns her efforts to save a few of these children from their fates to try to get them into schools and away from their poverty-stricken home lives. As the film progresses, we get to know the different kids, most of whom have far sunnier dispositions than one would expect. After a while, we develop an emotional investment in whether or not they're going to manage to escape.
Brothels won this year's Academy Award for best feature-length documentary, and one wonders if it would have been so honored had it presented a fuller picture of the children's situation. The sordid reality of the prostitutes' profession, their brutal customers, the absent fathers of the children and the fact that some of the girls will be "turned out" before they're 15 these things are alluded to but remain in the background of a film that's ultimately more charmingly bittersweet than truly disturbing. Brothels is made bearable by its emphasis on Briski's humanitarianism, which is genuine no matter how much it obscures the darker issues here. And despite one's qualms about the slant of the film, it would take a heart of stone not to respond to these precocious (and, in some cases, doomed) children.