The Academy Award winning documentary Born into Brothels (2004) is by no means flawless, as there is a self-congratulatory tone in documenting so carefully all the good the documentarians personally did for the children they elected to interact with in a redlight district of Calcutta. As one critic gaily put it too earnestly, this is the story of "One woman who became a ray of light." Much as Steve Irwin stars in films primarily about himself jumping on top of or rescuing crocodiles & is not a nature documentarian.
It could have been a lot more powerful if the "I struggled to help these kids" had been left as a footnote at the end or in a "makng up" featurette. If the filmmakers hadn't been mostly interested in themselves we might have gotten a bit closer to the childrens' actual situations. As it is, the children tend to be a mite romanticized by the editing choices, with distant hints of the horrors & abuses the children unquestionably experienced.
The dignity & intelligence of the children was nevertheless amazing. Considering that the adults in their lives seem violent, foul-mouthed, angry, drunken, drug-addicted, & diseased, one wonders how the kids remained so capable of self-reflection, politeness, & affection, just as we cannot help but wonder when the adults in their lives ceased to possess these finer characteristics & how long would it be before the kids became like the adults.
The kids were lent cameras to document the world they live in, but for reasons the film doesn't capture or reveal, the kids did not document much, whether for fear of the adults in their lives, or because the westerners could only lend the cameras for hours at a time (for fear they'd be pawned by adult relations) rather than indefinitely to use as required. Still, the enthusiasm for which the kids take to photography is charming, & a couple of them are even rather talented at framing shots.
Though as a documentary it mainly only scratches a surface & tells us much more about how hip & liberal it is to teach bordello kids to use a camera than it tells us about the kids, we nevertheless glimpse bits of authentic horror at the corners of the film, more by accident than design. And the subject of these children's lives is so powerful that even belly-button-gazing liberals from the west couldn't entirely fail to capture some of the pathos-driven heroism of these largely doomed bright kids.
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