Born Into Brothels
I personally have serious issues with the way the documentary conspicuously left out the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a 60,000-member sex worker organization in the Sonagachi district of Calcutta, where the documentary was filmed. The absence of any commentary whatsoever on DMSC is highly suspicious, as is the fact that Ms. Briski paints such a drudgery-filled picture of life in the brothels, leaving the viewer with the impression that all sex workers' children must suffer so dreadfully.
Add to that the fact that surely she must not have done any research into the district before she began filming (although I find that almost impossible to believe, which makes her film even more spurious*) or she would have known about the DMSC's having established schools specifically for the children of sex workers (35 schools), as the children are usually ostracized in regular schools. (The DMSC, which was originally started under the SHIP project by Dr. Samrajit Jana, had identified schools as a core need as early as 1995 when the SHIP project began.)
Furthermore, she never requested permission from the parents of the children to film them, and deliberately kept DMSC ignorant of her project. I believe that she "overlooked" the DMSC because it would create holes in her documentary.
Lastly, I echo many critics who maintain that she perpetuates and capitalizes on the typical ethnocentric myth of white people saving brown people from themselves, and this bothers me probably more than anything else.
In short, I do not like the film.
*Ms. Briski had been in Sonagachi since 1998, originally to research and do a documentary on sex workers there. Ignorance of the DMSC, as far as I can tell, would have been impossible if she had been there for that long. In my opinion, she had a story she wanted to tell, and was going to stick to it no matter what.
Here is a quote from a gentleman who helped to work on the film:
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 andHere is a critique of the documentary by the Scarlet Alliance, a sex workers' organization in Australia:
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) source
Born Into Brothels has won an Oscar and been seen by audiences all the world over. However, as reviewer Jenni G says below, there is nothing positive about portraying sex working mothers as abusive to their children - or purpetuating the myth that all sex workers' kids need to be 'saved.'
Here is an excellent, very in-depth review from SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Reflection and Action). I personally love it because it mentions Spivak's and Mohanty's critique of "orientalizing Indian women as helpless, exotic, and ‘other’ in relation to normative, empowered, white Western women." (I have always wanted to write a paper using Spivak's "subaltern" discourse to critique anti-prostitution feminists' discourses.):
Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels ignores local organizing
efforts and instead gives us more images of white saviors.
Here is a critique from Dhaka's Independent:
Excerpt: 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...