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Documentary "Born Into Brothels" and the Oscars: an insider's point of view
by Partha Banerjee (reposted by andy) Sunday, Mar. 20, 2005 at 3:51 AM

(This film won he Academy Award - "Oscar" - for Documentary -ed) I have been actively involved with the making of the documentary especially in its post-production stage. As a documentary filmmaker, a Columbia University-trained journalist-turned- activist and an avid admirer of the medium of film and motion pictures, I am deeply concerned that the nominations committee has perhaps overlooked some of the probable, serious flaws contained within the film - both ethical and stylistic.

Documentary "Born Into Brothels" and the Oscars: an insider's point of view

Below is a letter I wrote to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
(AMPAS, the Oscar award organizers) on this year's nominated documentary
"Born Into Brothels," a film I closely worked on. The film is based on the
lives of some kids of Kolkata's (Calcutta) red light district Sonagachhi.

I waited a couple of weeks after sending in the letter and because AMPAS did
not respond to my letter (no surprise), I decided to publish it in a few
listservs and send it to a few individuals.

There's no other motive than letting people know about my own POV on the
documentary. Having raised in Kolkata myself, I think I have my rights to
say a few things about the "documenting" of the city.

This is not a typical "critique" of the film. Also, the self-indulging
comments about myself in the letter are only to reinforce to them the notion
that the views are coming from someone who knows the "art and the artists."

-Partha

__________

Executive Director
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
8949 Wilshire Boulevard
Beverly Hills
California 90211

February 1, 2005

Dear Executive Director:

Subject: Nominations for the 77th Annual Academy Awards: Born Into Brothels

Your announced nominations for the upcoming 77th Annual Academy Awards
include in the Best Documentary Feature section "Born into Brothels"
(THINKFilm, A Red Light Films, Inc. Production, by Ross Kauffman and Zana
Briski). I have been actively involved with the making of the documentary
especially in its post-production stage. As a documentary filmmaker, a
Columbia University-trained journalist-turned- activist and an avid admirer
of the medium of film and motion pictures, I am deeply concerned that the
nominations committee has perhaps overlooked some of the probable, serious
flaws contained within the film - both ethical and stylistic.

In your official synopsis, the film is described as follows: "While
documenting the experiences of prostitutes in Calcutta's red-light district,
photojournalist Zana Briski befriended many of their children and decided to
provide them with a chance to record images from their own lives. Supplied
with cameras by Briski, the children present a portrait of their harsh world
that is both unique and insightful."

The above is indeed true. And I don't have any problems finding credit for
Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman for the time they took to live with and befriend
the poor children. However, 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. The children's
despair has exacerbated because they'd hoped that with active involvement in
Ms. Briski's camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live
a better life. 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. Alas, very likely, they don't even know that their misery,
helplessness and traumas are now being widely exposed and exploited to find
fame and prosperity.

Further, the film forgets to mention that Calcutta is a city where its
red-light district is a safe refuge for its sex workers and their trade.
With help from hundreds of Calcuttan activists, social workers and medical
practitioners, Sonagachi (the district depicted in the film) has become
synonymous with many struggles won by its inhabitants (for one, the HIV rate
among sex workers in Sonagachi is remarkably low: 5% compared to 80% in
Mumbai). These sex workers and their activist comrades have set up --
however rudimentary -- financial institutions, health clinics, sex education
schools and blood banks in that labyrinth of alleys that would otherwise be
ignored and rejected by the other side of Calcutta and its elite doctors,
artists, poets, filmmakers and politicians (and I must say, I was one of
this other side for more than twenty five years of my life before I moved
into U.S.). 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. "It takes a
village..."

Stylistically, the documentary is in fact a mix of real and fictitious shots
and scenarios, the latter being abundant throughout the film. This makes me
question the legitimacy of the film being labeled as a documentary and not a
fiction. A plethora of glitzy, Bombay-film-industry (i.e., Bollywood) music
has been used to editorialize the film, which is troubling.

The most troubling, however, is the use of the final piece of music that
ends the "documentary" with an apparent melodramatic note. This piece (it
was in there at the time the film was premiered at New York City's Museum of
Radio and Television in 2004) has been directly "lifted" from the celebrated
Calcuttan film maestro, Oscar-winning Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy finale. Is
Ms. Briski or Mr. Kauffman aware of this serious digression?

It is not my wish to personally tarnish the directors and producers of Born
into Brothels and I apologize profusely in the event my assertions are found
untrue. However, I am troubled by the nominations and eulogies heaped upon
the film without some serious re-examination. We Calcutta-born Americans who
crave for high art and creativity are already much-undermined by many other
attempts to relegate our beloved city into ignominy. My opinion is that the
present so-called documentary is the latest addition to that series of gross
misrepresentations.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Sincerely,

Partha Banerjee M.Sc. (Journalism), Ph.D. (Biology)
http://www.geocities.com/chokmoki


http://lists.ilps-news.com/listinfo/info-bureau


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