Friday, April 16, 2010

Film Review- Born Into Brothels

Last night we watched the 2003 Orscar winning HBO documentary 'Born Into Brothels' on Netflix Streaming. I had seen a similar documentary on an organization that did undercover sting operations to expose and bring to justice coerced prostitution in India and elsewhere. This one dealt with children of prostitutes living in Sona Gachi, one of Asia's largest red light districts.

The film focused in on a dozen kids who are introduced to us in a very personal way through the course of the movie. The filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman shot the movie through several months of living and working in Sona Gachi. Briski, a theology major from Cambridge, spent a few years living with the kids, teaching them photography and eventually staging an exhibit of their works in India and elsewhere.

The film traces how the kids lives are slowly changed as they move into schools after months of red tape, social ostracism and concerns about potential HIV infection (as it turned out, non-existent) kept the kids from decent schools. It then traces Avijit Halder (now in his senior year at NYU) is praised for his work in photography and is selected to go to Amsterdam where his work is exhibited among a select group of kids with outstanding skills.

The movie ends with notes about how the kids are faring. Except a couple of kids who mvoed back into the sex trade (primarily due to their family's reluctance to let them study further), the others all fared well and as of today are doing very well in India and the United States.

I liked the fact that the movie stresses the significance of social change as a result of commitment and consensus. The parents of some of these kids earned some money out of the film project but one of them did not want her daughter to move out of the trade. In a recent interview she says, "'At this age, I have a flat, a laptop, costly phones and plenty of money. What do I lack?"

One wonders why these parents did not see far enough to understand the opportunities these kids had before them. They got some cash from the proceeds of the movie, and they had a good reason to keep their kids off the trade. Another kid whose aunt was raising her after her mother's death was pressurizing her to go into prostitution. While she wanted to go to school and learn, she wasn't allowed to; and moved back into the flesh trade.

Of course, cash isn't the issue- but perhaps in Sona Gachi the abilty to understand that life outside of the familiar if hellish street life is something desirable may be limited. Years ago as a summer intern in my second year of MBA I lived in Bombay for 2 months at the YMCA on Lamington Road near the Opera House. Although it is nothing to compare with Sona Gachi, it is a semi-red light area. You turn the corner from a nice-looking street and come up on this crowded area with tired yellow buildings built at the turn of the last century. Many evanglists came to preach at the YMCA, and several good friends who were committed followers of Christ lived there, but everyone (including me) turned our faces away from the griding poverty and the nightly circus that went on on the sidewalks, the women pacing up and down amongst the crowds, shifty-eyed, druken men moving in and out of their tenements. One day in the early hours of dawn we were woken by angry shouts from the streets below. We were on the 5th floor of the building. I looked down and a number of prostitutes were fighiting, presumably over money, screaming at each other, mouthing profanities, pulling each others' hair.

The HBO movie shows us a similar scene inside the brothel (a squalid, dark place which most of us would never see). It is remarkable how these women, all in the same tragic plight, would accuse each other of being filthy and immoral. The film shows us the faces of the listening kids, their expressions showing numbness and distress at the same time. Sometimes a picture like that takes you back to Lamington Road in an instant, shocking you without warning.

Margaret Mead once said, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." The more I live the more I see the truth of this. As I read the book Mountains Beyond Mountains on Dr. Paul Farmer, and understand how the battle over high drug prices in poverty-stricken Lima, Port-au-Prince and Russian prisons were fought, by a committed minority, and won decisively, and I see the pain and heartbreak that accompanies such commitment, the more I realize that a bunch of people promising huge amounts of money in aid through Government programs may not truly realize the insignificance of their actions. You can spend a fortune on the Third World and see the cash disappearing down a black hole without making the slightest difference to anyone's life- unless you know that at the other end are committed people with the ability to connect with people.

This movie was made on a shoestring budget. The kids went to school based on the creative energy unleashed by the filmmaker's commitment in teaching the kids the skills they knew. Who can deny that their lives were changes by the commitment of a few?


I had ended my post with te above paragraph, but I need to end with a nod to the music. Composer John McDowell weaves both Indian melodies, some from Bollywood and others from India's religious tradition, into the movie. The result is outstanding. One of the hooks, Gopala, doesn't leave my mind. As an aside I can appreciate why they chose this song. Gopala is a devotional to Krsna, his childhood as a precocious happy little charmer has captured Indian's imagination and affection for centuries.

You can see a vide of a live performance of this song here:

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