A photojournalist who came to Calcutta in the late ’90s to document its red-light district, Zana Briski eventually befriended many of the prostitutes’ children. She gave them cameras and taught them how to shoot and edit the world they knew: the crowded, filthy boarding house where their mothers live and toil. In the tough, thoroughly engrossing documentary Born Into Brothels, co-directed by Briski with Ross Kauffman, we meet (among others) Puja, an ebullient princess who ventures fearlessly into Calcutta’s streets to snap candids; Avijit, whose offhanded (and one-handed) cool-guy camera moves veil an impeccable eye for the perfect shot; and Suchitra, a shy, tall beauty who’s reached the dangerous age of 14, when many girls “join the line.”

For this self-selecting group of bright, energetic, curious kids, the only path out of the brothels leads to a decent boarding school, and Briski sees their photography as a means to fund their education. (Amnesty used the Sonagachi children’s pictures for a 2002 calendar.) The specter of long odds and narrow choices shades every frame of the film, yet the tone is often buoyant and legitimately inspirational, as when the class runs riot during a seaside field trip, or when Briski hacks her way through a bureaucratic no-man’s-land of red tape and black holes and somehow emerges out the other end holding a passport for Avijit (who’s selected to attend a World Press Photo Foundation event in Amsterdam).

Born Into Brothels testifies to the kids’ untaught resilience and hope, and to their mentor’s selfless energies. Almost inevitably for a documentary of this stripe, it risks aestheticizing poverty—but here it’s usually the kids themselves who compose the most arresting images.

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