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In a tribute to the resiliency of childhood, debut writers/directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman offer a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Briski, a photographer, gives each child a camera and teaches them how to take pictures, causing them to look at their world with new eyes. Humorous and heartfelt, the film reveals the power of art and how beauty can be found in the most unlikely of places. Winner of ten major film festival prizes, including the 2004 Sundance Audience Award for Best Documentary.
 

 Eight Great Reasons To Make A Documentary

In 1998, my then-girlfriend, photographer Zana Briski, began traveling to Calcutta to photograph life in the red light district. She literally lived in the brothels for months at a time, and while the prostitutes slowly came to trust Zana, it was their children who accepted her immediately. The children didn’t quite understand what Zana was doing there, but they were fascinated by her and her camera. She let them use it and showed them how to take pictures. She thought it would be great to see this world through their eyes. It was then that she decided to start formal classes in the red light district and teach them photography. Zana thrived on teaching them and the kids eagerly captured their lives and environment through the lens of their point-and-shoot cameras. The results of their work were exhilarating.

When Zana returned six months later to New York City, she was bursting with excitement about the kids and the class. She felt that their stories and the photo class should be documented in some way.

I remember telling Zana, “Look, if you want to go and spend all your money [she had none] to enter the dubious arena of documentary filmmaking for years to come, feel free. As for me, I will stay in New York, focus on my career and become a cameraperson.”

But Zana seemed to know me better than I knew myself. I guess she knew there was a filmmaker somewhere inside of me, and it just needed a good reason to come out. Before leaving again for Calcutta, she bought two video cameras on her credit card. She gave me one for my birthday, and took the other one with her to Calcutta.

Two weeks later, Zana’s first four videotapes arrived from Calcutta for me to “critique” (she had never shot video before). Within the first ten minutes of viewing the first tape, I knew I was going to Calcutta. The footage was breathtaking—these “children of prostitutes,” these glorious kids, these brilliant rays of light, smiling, laughing, taking photos. I was floored. I was hooked.

Three weeks later I was in Calcutta making this movie with Zana.

There are many legitimate reasons not to make documentary films. But in this case, I present to you eight wonderfully incredible, delightfully ridiculous, funny, sweet, loving, sneaky, unwieldy and ultimately beautiful reasons to take the leap.


1. Kochi, 10
All you have to do is look at her. Better yet, all she has to do is look at you. Those dreamy eyes lock into yours and you immediately fall in love with her. The effect is such that you want to hold her hand and protect her from all that surrounds her. But don’t let the eyes fool you. Behind them lies a girl who is strong and resilient, tough and sensitive. She uses the camera to escape her surroundings and says that she prefers taking photos to editing. She is shy, sweet and vulnerable, but can handle the harsh realities of life, and does so with grace.

2. Avijit, 12
Easily the most talented kid in the red light district (and maybe all of Calcutta for that matter), Avijit is a true artist. Sitting in his overcrowded room, watching life go by, drawing, painting, photographing. When Zana first asked me to come make a film, it was Avijit’s work that she kept pointing to on the contact sheets saying, “This kid is a genius! I’ve been shooting for twenty years and he is better than me!” And of course, once I met him, watched him paint and take photos, I understood exactly what she meant. (I, too, am a bit jealous of his talents.) And like most great artists, he has the ego to match his talent.

3. Shanti, 11
I love Shanti. So smart, so witty and quick. But in the end, she is troubled. I feel for her and worry that she may never make it out of the red light district. While I was in Calcutta, I made an English book for the kids. I took one of those Lonely Planet phrase books, copied it and asked my translator to translate it into Bengali, the native language of Calcutta. I made eight copies, passed them out to all the kids and started teaching them English. Shanti was easily the most focused and ready to learn. And she was talented with the video camera as well (she filmed some of the classroom scenes in the film). She has a voracious appetite to learn, but I fear her self-destructive behavior may get the best of her.

4. Manik, 10
Great kid. Sweet to the core. He lives in a small room with his sister Shanti and loves to fly kites. Though quiet, he is a daring photographer who likes to experiment with composition. He says he now likes photography more than kites.


5. Gour, 13
Gour is incredible. From the first moment I saw footage of this kid, I knew he was special. Sensitive and thoughtful, he dislikes his environment and wants to use photography to change it. But don’t let him fool you. He has a wicked sense of humor and always loves to smile and laugh. He is best friends with Puja. I always would joke with them that they would get married. I still think they might.

6. Puja, 11
A tomboy at heart, Puja is best friends with Gour. She is always laughing, always smiling, always up to something. I used to joke with Puja and Gour, asking them if they would invite me to their marriage once they decided to tie the knot. And of course, as soon as I finished my sentence, she would have a comeback, usually something along the lines of “As soon as you and Zana auntie tie the knot!!!! Then maybe you can come to our wedding!!!”

7. Tapasi, 11
Tapasi wants to be a teacher and dreams of being able to take care of her younger brother and sister. She photographs the harsh reality of life, using the camera to tell her story. My first night in Calcutta, Tapasi was upset. I forget about what exactly, but while all the other kids were having a good time, she was in the corner, frowning and sad. I couldn’t stand to see her like that. In a matter of twenty minutes, I had her laughing, and from that point on, we were great friends. She is a natural teacher, patient and understanding. At one point, I made an attempt to learn Bengali, and she taught me with an incredible amount of patience and understanding. I was amazed at how a child from the red light district could be so centered and kind.

8. Suchitra, 14
I miss Suchitra. She is the oldest of the group. Shy and quiet, Suchitra is a gifted photographer, taking pictures of daily life from her rooftop. Suchitra’s photo of her friend Dipika was chosen as the cover of the Amnesty International 2003 Calendar. Most people pick up a camera, quickly snap a shot and that is it. Suchitra patiently takes the time to look through the viewfinder at what she is trying to capture, and most times, she does it brilliantly.