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Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

A girl wearing a scarf over her head.
May 22, 2022 - 5:00 pm

Restoration West Coast premiere!

Born into Brothels: Calcutta's Red Light Kids

U.S., 2004

While living in Calcutta to document sex workers in the red-light district, British photographer Zana Briski began offering photography classes to the neighborhood children as a way to give back to the community. Born into Brothels follows the progress of the class as a plan hatches to improve the children’s futures through photography. We learn about the lives of this group of 10 children who reside in extreme poverty through first-person interviews and through their art. From the confident prodigy Avijit to the bold, outgoing Puja, each child’s personality shines from the screen. All express a desire to better their circumstances, but some of the girls do not see a future beyond living “on the line” like their mothers.

Briski and off-screen co-director Ross Kauffman are not objective documentarians but active participants as they attempt to find placement for the children at local boarding schools, only to come up against state bureaucracy, the rigid caste system and discrimination towards children of sex workers. Their fundraising efforts bring international attention to the young artists along with hope for a brighter future. This participatory documentary was not without its critics, as some within India found it to under-represent the efforts being made by sex workers in the Sonagachi district to provide education opportunities for their own children, in effect emphasizing the white savior aspect of the film.

Despite these criticisms, the heartfelt mission of the filmmakers and the film was embraced by audiences and critics alike, earning many festival awards, such as a Sundance Film Festival Audience Award, as well as the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. Though bittersweet, the film showcases the transformative power of art despite grim circumstances. All pre-print film elements for this title were destroyed in a fire, leaving only original tape elements as protection against loss.

Jillian Borders

DCP, color, in Bengali and English with English subtitles, 84 min. Production: Red Light Films, HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films. Distribution: THINKFilm, HBO. Producers: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman. Directors: Zana Briski, Ross Kauffman. With Shanti Das, Puja Mukerjee, Avijit Halder.

Restoration funding provided by the Sundance Institute and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Restored by the Academy Film Archive and the UCLA Film & Television Archive in conjunction with the Sundance Institute from a D5, a DigiBeta, a 35mm print and a Magneto Optical Disk. Laboratory services by Roundabout Entertainment, Inc., Audio Mechanics.