Born Into Saving Brothel Children
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, released theatrically in December 2004, won the 2005 Oscar for Best Documentary. The filmmakers describe their film as “A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes.” The film industry’s recognition of Born into Brothels should give us all pause. Rather than tell us something new about prostitutes in India, the filmmakers reiterate a very old story of heroic white westerners saving poor brown children who don’t know any better than to persist in their dead-end lives. The popularity of the film in the U.S. indicates its excellent uses of melodrama, its high production values, and its tight narrative. Unfortunately, this popularity also points to the fact that a very old and palatable tale is being told about prostitution, a tale in which prostitution and violence are synonymous, sex workers are unfit parents, and the only hope for children living in red light districts with their families is to be taken away from them by non-sex worker adults who necessarily know better.
The most astounding feat this film accomplishes is in giving such intimate details about life in Sonagachi, the red light district in Calcutta where the film takes place. Filmmakers Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman, accompanied by local interpreters (who remain off-screen throughout) are able to capture footage of children walking around the area, of families at home watching TV, of girls fetching water from the local tap, and countless other details to a point which convinces the audience that we are actually seeing typical days in the life of the district. Unfortunately, this impression is formed by an insidious portrayal of interactions between children and adults that alternate between bewilderment, verbal abuse and, in one instance, violence. We may ask, are there no other interactions between adults and children here that are worth seeing? Are the white filmmakers the only adults that these children can rely upon for safety? Are all of the adults in Sonagachi morally corrupt individuals simply seeking to turn a profit through the bodies of their sons and daughters?
Partha Banerjee worked on the film as an interpreter. Upon seeing the final product, and then hearing that the film had won a nomination for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award people), Mr. Banerjee wrote a letter to AMPAS explaining why the film should not be so recognized. His letter addresses some of the questions raised by the film. In it, he writes,
…I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true. I visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them…At the same time, their sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously (were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?), there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories the filmmakers are now shining in. …The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd. (February 1, 2005)
In fact, the prospect of portraying Sonagachi as a red light district with no active non-governmental organizations (NGOs), no history of activism regarding HIV/AIDS and trafficking, and no relationship with the local authorities is incredible. While not every sex worker in the area has been part of the success stories of local organizing, Sonagachi, in particular, has earned world renown through organizations like the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC). The DMSC has been working in Sonagachi for more than a decade, and is seen as a model for improving health status and working conditions among sex workers. The HIV infection rate among sex workers in Calcutta is around 5%, which is especially significant in comparison with other red light areas in India. Other organizations working in the district, including Sanlaap, assisted the filmmakers in their project. However, Sanlaap workers were never identified clearly, and were instead portrayed as interpreters, school administrators, and were generally seen as part of the background against the ‘real’ story of the filmmakers mounting their rescue. The audience’s lasting impression is that, without Briski and Kaufmann, the people living in this district are without hope and options.
This film raises concerns about the ethics of documentary filmmaking, and recalls Gayatri Spivak’s and Chandra Mohanty’s arguments against orientalizing Indian women as helpless, exotic, and ‘other’ in relation to normative, empowered, white Western women. The film also raises policy concerns that are at the core of contemporary debates on prostitution and ‘trafficking in women.’ This debate has hovered around the juridical positions of legalization, criminalization, and decriminalization. The problem with the debate, and with the film, is that these positions are often taken under the assumption that criminalizing prostitution is the same thing as addressing its abuses. In fact, the criminalization of prostitution, a stance which the film advocates in its unilateral criticism of red light areas and prostitute-mothers as unsafe for children, fundamentally enhances the rights of governments to enforce laws however the local police see fit. On the ground, the criminalization of prostitution has meant that the police conduct brothel raids more frequently, families are separated through arrest, and women in prostitution are made to pay exorbitant fines and bribes for their release from police custody. There is little or no data substantiating a connection between the criminalization of prostitution and actually reducing the number of women who work as sex workers. This is hardly surprising, given that the criminalization of prostitution in no way addresses the structuring contexts of the sex industry. On the other hand, there are many arguments and data supporting formation of sex worker-led collectives and unions, as well as the decriminalization of sex work, as ways to reduce violence and health risks among people selling sexual services.
Broadly speaking, the issue of prostitution is also an issue of migration. Almost all sex workers are, after all, migrants from somewhere. By the same token, some anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution laws and policies are, in fact, part of anti-migrant legal strategies. In the case of Sonagachi, as is the case with most urban red light areas in South Asia, the majority of people selling sexual services there are from villages where they aimed to survive as landless agricultural workers. While some people may have been trafficked or brought to red light areas under false pretenses, a significant number passed through other kinds of work (e.g., building construction work and piece work manufacturing) before doing sex work. Most, if not all, sex workers in South Asia support families back in their villages through regular remittances. Born Into Brothels reiterates a generalized lack of interest in these and other structuring contexts for prostitution. Instead, it relates an old, familiar story of prostitution as inherently violent and immoral, of the need for well-intentioned Western saviors in South Asia, and of states as invisible and benign, and even, perhaps, helpless themselves.