Calcutta's Red Light Kids

Photojournalist Zana Briski wanted to photograph sex workers in Sonagachi, a red light district of Kolkata (Calcutta), but she knew she couldn't do it as an outsider, so beginning in 1997 she lived in the area for months at a time. This documentary film, which she wrote and directed with Ross Kauffman, focuses on the relationship Briski forged over a number of years with a group of children who live in the slum and whose mothers, aunts, and sisters work as prostitutes. Much of the film is narrated by the children.

The children's lives themselves would have made an excellent subject for a film, for they each have compelling stories to tell. They had little chance for education, and instead of going to school, fetched water, did laundry, washed dishes, swept floors, cooked. Manik, 10, loved to fly his kite and tease his sister Shanti, 11. Puja, also 11, was a tomboy, full of spark and life; her best friend Gour, 13, articulated the chaos and misery of their lives with remarkable clarity and sensitivity. Sweet and shy Suchitra, 14, was afraid her aunt would soon send her off to sell her body as her mother had done before her. Avijit, 11, had already won many prizes for his paintings. The creative young boy tried not to hate his father, a drug addict, and yearned for a better life, though when his mother was burnt to death by her pimp, he plunged into apathy and depression.

But the film is about more than just these tawdry details, and the children's likely futures of prostitution, drugs, and more poverty.

Briski knew how miserable and impoverished the lives of these children were, and the kids knew it too. They begged Zana Auntie to help them, and all she could offer was a weekly course in photography. She provided each of a dozen children with a simple point-and-shoot 35 mm camera and taught them technique, composition, and editing. The results are transformative, for Briski and the children alike.

Cameras in hand, the children are curious, emboldened, transported, and in control. They capture compelling images of the world around them: a skinny street dog running in fear, a younger sister sleeping on a jumble of clothes, a kite, each other, themselves. Some of their photos were good, very good, and Briski was determined to do something with them to help the children even more. She organized an exhibition of their photos in a local bookstore, garnering national and international TV and newspaper coverage. She arranged an auction of the children's work at Sotheby's, and got twelve of their prints chosen for the 2003 Amnesty International calendar. All the money earned from the photos goes directly to benefit the photographers themselves. Briski used some to pay for schooling, but not before she was forced to wheedle and plead and struggle with the formidable Indian bureaucracy to get the children accepted into boarding schools. Avijit even flew to Amsterdam to be a member of the children's Jury of the World Press Photo Foundation, thanks to Briski's tireless work on his behalf. Inspiring stuff.

The film itself captures beautifully the cramped and noisy world where the children live, all narrow dingy alleys lined with bored women waiting for customers. In tiny filthy rooms men crouch around trays of liquor, women lean against walls, and children do chores, nap in corners, or fly kites on the roof. We also see the children transported to worlds new to them: splashing in the waves of the sea after a ride on a bus that Briski has chartered, shrieking in taxis taking them to the zoo, grimacing as they have blood taken for HIV tests that the schools demand before considering their applications.

This is an important, if emotionally wrenching, film, and not just for showing us a world that most of us know intellectually exists but have no direct experience of. It goes beyond just showing, reminding us that something can indeed be done to better the lives of those born into such unfortunate circumstances. By the end of the movie, not all the children have escaped their grim neighbourhood: some were held back by parents who wouldn't let them leave, and some chose to stay with, or return to, what they already knew. That is how it will be. But Briski did what she could to better their lives - and bettered her own in the process.

Briski has since formed a foundation, Kids with Cameras, that does similar work with children around the world. See www.kids-with-cameras.org to donate.

This film won a well-deserved Academy Award in 2004. Highly recommended.

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