With the advent of small digital-video cameras and relatively inexpensive microphones, documenting our world has become considerably easier, as evinced by the recent documentary-film boom at both festivals and art houses. Still, some situations and locations are still exceedingly difficult to approach. For example, the teeming brothels of Calcutta, India. Zana Briski, a respected photojournalist, has been living on and off in the brothels since 1998. During this time, she’s befriended a number of children and started a photography class to teach them how to document their own lives. In the winter of 2000, Briski asked Ross Kauffman to collaborate with her on a documentary exploring the lives of these children and their world. The result, Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids, premiered at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival and has toured the world. Paste spoke with Kauffman shortly after the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary.
The film introduces us to the children early—five girls and three boys between the ages of 10 and 14 years old. All of them have the wonderful smiles and innate curiosity you’d expect from children their age. Each also has a way with a camera, as we see in their photographs. Hovering over the children and their photo class, however, is their future. As one girl remarks in an early voiceover, “The men who come to our building are not so good, and the women ask when I’m going to join the line.” The “line” is a euphemism for prostitution, but we soon see its reality, as Kauffman’s camera surreptitiously films a long line of Calcutta’s women (some as young as 14) standing in the streets as men eye them lustily.
Surprisingly, the children are completely comfortable in front of the camera. Kauffman explains, “Because they were also taking photos, they had an awareness. They were documenting certain things; I was documenting certain things. They might have acted differently because of my personality behind the camera, because I really like to have fun with the kids.”
Still, making this documentary was far from easy. “Shooting in the brothel is always a tenuous situation. You never know when you’re going to be kicked out. The women and children totally trusted us; there was no problem when we were in their rooms. But when we were in common spaces, we had to be very, very careful.”
A different kind of trouble arose when Kauffman, Briski and editor Nancy Baker tried to put the movie together. “[The film] was a bear to edit. There were so many different stories. I had the story of the kids—each individual kid, and I wasn’t sure if I should include them all. I had this idea of the photo class. I had Zana who comes in, and I have to introduce her: Who is she? Why is she there? Another major challenge in the editing was having a protagonist who’s not the main character. The main characters are the kids. The film’s about them. But the protagonist is this woman, who’s trying to help them. So that was a huge challenge to keep that balance.”
The film’s success, on a critical and commercial level, has been deeply gratifying to both Briski and Kauffman. “If I can just reach average people who don’t normally reach out to people … if I can have them love the kids a fraction as much as I do, then we’ve done our job.”
Since completing the documentary, the filmmakers have kept track of the kids and visited Calcutta. “We were actually in Calcutta when the Oscar nominations were announced,” Kauffman says. “I had this little cell phone, and I had it on speaker. Our distributor came on the phone and said, ‘You guys got it.’ And the children started jumping on the bed. That was a great moment.
The kids are all doing really, really well. None of the kids are in the line. Three are in schools. [The others are] living in the brothels, but they’re going out taking computer/English classes and doing really well. So we’re really proud of them.”