Zana Briski may never make another movie. After all, “I never intended to make this one,” she says of Born Into Brothels, the Sundance-honored, Oscar-short-listed documentary she co-directed with Ross Kauffman (opening December 8 at Film Forum).
Seven years in the making, it concerns the children of prostitutes in the red-light district of Calcutta—how they live, how they keep smiling. It’s also about their photography (taught to them by Briski, who actually lived in a brothel). And it’s about the money the children’s photographs have raised for their education, the school for red-light kids that will now be built (on land donated by the “Divine Mother” Ammachi, India’s “hugging saint”), and the hope—so crushed after the nonfiction orgy of the recent election—that a documentary can make a difference.
Briski and Kauffman seem an odd couple—and actually were one when shooting began. Kauffman, a no-nonsense New Yorker, was a doc editor trying to transition into camera work; Briski, a Cambridge-educated, New York–based photographer who went to Calcutta at the invitation of some Tibetan monks, was on a spiritual quest. She’d been in Calcutta three years when she asked Kauffman to help make a film. “I was too ignorant for trepidation,” Kauffman says.
“India was the last place I wanted to go,” says Briski, a World Press Photo winner. “The crowds, the chaos, the denigration of the female—even though they worship goddesses—was antithetical to me. But it was something I had to explore.”
HBO picked up the film at first glance; it will air next fall. Meanwhile, the directors may have to contend with the knee-jerk assumption that they were white do-gooders delivering patriarchy unto a third-world hellhole. But, Kauffman says, “Zana didn’t go in there trying to save kids. She actually went in there by accident and was just sort of reacting to what she could do. We’ve been in credit card debt over $100,000 combined for the last five years. It’s not like we’re rich Americans trying to save the world.” Briski adds, “It’s a choice of whether to live in the world or retreat from it. If I live in it I have to respond to it. It’s not about saving, or guilt, or trying to do good.”