2004 Academy Award Winner, Best Documentary
I just returned from a screening of this film, followed by a Q & A with the director (CNU is sponsoring a really cool documentary film series with award winning directors). Briski, a professional photographer, headed to Calcutta with the original intent to photograph brothel workers in India. However, she became quickly enamored with their kids and gave a group of 8 children photography lessons to nurture their creative expression. The film documents these kids' experiences with photography from their initial interest in the art to their successful selling of the prints to pay for ways out of the brothels. Briski has taken the film on the festival circuit, winning numerous awards and generating exposure for her non-profit, Kids with Cameras.
The film definitely won the Oscar based on its social convictions and not necessarily on its artistic merit. It's good, but as far as a documentary "film," it falls a bit flat. What troubled me the most was that the mothers were depicted as rather uncaring and uninterested, often abusing the children verbally. While I am certain that was the case to some extent, it was pointedly juxtaposed to Briski's tireless efforts to teach the kids under dire circumstances and to get them into safe boarding schools. I have a hard time believing these parents, as desperate as they are, were that unsupportive. Two questions that troubled me were raised separately during the Q & A: How supportive and loving were the mothers? and How did academics respond to the film?
Her answer to the former question belies what was depicted on-screen: disinterested and abusive mothers. She suggested that almost all the parents were welcoming and quite supportive of sending the kids to school. Which, I think, sheds a great deal of light on her answer to the latter. She notes that academics were critical of her effort (white woman going into save the poor, helpless Indian kids); she retorts, rightly, that she is trying to make a real, substantive difference so critique be damned. I give her all the credit in the world, her foundation is sticking with these kids and all the money they raise goes directly to the kids' education (so I think the broader critique is stupid). But, I must admit the seemingly unsympathetic depiction of the prostitute mothers is troublesome, especially juxtaposed to Briski's unselfish and dogged efforts to get these kids into schools.
One last aside. I found it odd that she proudly proclaimed that she just received American citizenship last Friday (formerly British). Without sounding too jingoistic, it is nice to see people who wish to make the world a better place actually believe they could do that without fleeing to Canada. I guess living six months a year for six years in the brothels of Calcutta will do that to you.
Man, do I use a lot of parenthetical statements (I guess it is my penchant for asides).