Cameras on Unseen Calcutta; Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman’s “Born into Brothels”
by Wendy Mitchell
If you’ve been to a film festival this year, chances are you’ve already heard of Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman‘s “Born Into Brothels.” The doc won the audience award at Sundance 2004 and has since gone on to win dozens upon dozens of other festival prizes, from festivals small and large. It’s now on the Oscar shortlist for best documentary. From its title and its subjects — a group of kids, ages 10-14, who are children of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district — you would expect this film to be one of the most depressing of the year. Yet it’s actually one of the most inspiring.
Briski traveled to Calcutta long before the film started to photograph the prostitutes of the red-light district; while she lived among them she got to know the children. Soon, Briski was teaching the kids how to use cameras to take their own photos. She invited Kauffman to help her document the results. The children were liberated and inspired by their own artistic awakenings, and many of their lives were changed for the better. Some started attending better schools and moved out of the brothels, one has demonstrated such photography talent that he’s invited to conferences abroad, and still another is living in the brothels but trying to make a difference there.
Even putting aside the film’s inspirational messages, it’s hard to find fault with “Brothels” technically — the film tackles an emotional subject without getting too sentimental, the editing is superb, and the cinematography is strikingly beautiful as it captures the vibrancy of Calcutta’s streets. The filmmakers shot the film themselves without a crew, gathering 170 hours of footage over the course of two and a half years.
In addition to still helping the Calcutta children, Briski’s organization Kids with Cameras is also busy establishing similar programs in Cairo, Haiti, and Israel; the group has raised more than $100,000 by selling the children’s photographs at film festivals and on its website. Briski and Kauffman plan to visit Calcutta in 2005 and hope to open an arts school there in 2006.
THINKFilm, working with HBO/Cinemax Documentary Films, opened “Born into Brothels” at Film Forum in New York on Wednesday; a national roll-out will follow in January.
indieWIRE: How did you decide to make this film together?
Zana Briski: We were in a relationship for six years. I invited Ross to make the film. Because this is such personal work, I can’t imagine inviting anyone other than Ross to work with me. If it hadn’t been Ross, I probably would have attempted to do it myself, which would have been a disaster.
Ross Kauffman: Zana had been going back and forth to India. She came back after she started teaching the kids and had the idea for a film. We talked about it but I wasn’t that interested, I didn’t want to go into that four or five years of filmmaking struggle. I wanted to become a cameraman actually. But she bought us two video cameras, and she took one to Calcutta and shot some footage and sent it back to me. I was blown away by the footage and went to Calcutta right away.
iW: Ross, why were you so trepidacious at first? Just because it would be a torturous project to make this film?
Kauffman: I was an editor for a long time, I edited documentaries, I saw a lot of filmmakers go beyond struggling, they would go for years and years and years and just get nowhere. And I was down on the whole situation. I hadn’t seen a lot of films that broke through and made a difference. In the last couple of years, that’s changed. Back then it was really, really hard.
iW: So what part of Zana’s early footage convinced you that you had to make this film?
Kauffman: It was only four tapes. I watched the first tape and I knew I’d go to Calcutta. It was two scenes — one was the joy and pride on Kochi’s face as she showed her grandmother contact sheets, and the grandmother was reacting too. And the first scene of the kids taking photos on the street of each other. They were having so much fun, I get chills thinking about it.
iW: When you first started this project, what kind of discussions did you have about the kind of film you wanted to make?
Briski: None. Nothing. And that’s the way I work (as a photographer), so I think I set the tone. I know Ross was worried about story and I didn’t think about the future at all, about the film, I just knew we had to be there and be open to document and that was it. Just be ready for whatever happens. I knew the truth would reveal itself. I don’t set anything up — no lights, no nothing — in my own photography, so the film was also in that kind of verite style.
Kauffman: That’s the kind of documentaries that I also edited and that I liked.
Briski: I trusted him, it was about trust, I couldn’t have had anyone else in there because after years of work, my access could have been shut down in a heartbeat. It’s really about a matter of trust and closeness.
iW: Were the kids different when the cameras were on?
Briski: Not at all. In the beginning they were excited for the camera like they were for the still camera, which would last about two seconds. But not, not at all in the footage. They really enjoyed the camera, being in front of it or behind it. The big thing that was hard, that took longer, was to interview the kids. Because they don’t talk about their environment, they don’t talk about their lives like that. That took one of the kids being outspoken and the other kids watching her. They got it, they realized it was safe.
iW: Ross, why did you want to help with the editing?
Kauffman: I actually didn’t want to edit it. We had Nancy Baker to edit, for the first seven months she edited the film, then I edited it for the last four and a half. It was really important to have another set of eyes in there, and to have someone be the referee between me and Zana. I think Nancy certainly added something.
iW: I don’t want this question to sound rude, but seeing this film you see what amazing work you’ve done, so does it ever feel like all this time spent at podunk little film festivals is a waste of your time and you should be out doing other work instead? This film is old news for you.
Briski: The work is ongoing and moving forward, so for me it’s not just the film. It’s not about just these few kids in Calcutta, it’s about opening hearts. So every audience is important, it’s about connecting with people and raising awareness. It has been hard [being on the festival circuit], there were times we were exhausted, and the traveling has been kind of depressing at times. But overall it’s been an incredible year. You can communicate with audiences that might not see the film otherwise. Part of what we have to do is let it go, to know we don’t have to be there with every audience.
Kauffman: It’s hard to let it go. But we both want to move on with whatever work we’re going to do next.
iW: I’ve been at several festivals with you guys, and obviously you both made this film, but Zana stars in it, so people run up to her afterwards. Is it difficult being a subject in your own film?
Briski: It was difficult being filmed because I’m very private and shy. It was kind of mildly annoying. At first watching it during the editing process was really freaky. I’m used to being behind a camera. That’s much more natural for me. But if my life can inspire people, that’s what I have to do. My idea is to be of service.
iW: How did you like the transition from documentary photography to documentary filmmaking?
Briski: I would not look for a film, but if a subject grabbed me the way this one did, I’d consider making another film. I miss still photography, that’s what I want to do next. There’s a photography project I want to work on… the way I work is that it comes to me in dreams and then I go out in the world and find it. I have to go to Namibia for the next one.
iW: Ross what will you do next?
Kauffman: I just got back from Kashmir, India, shooting a documentary for somebody else. I’m shooting now and people want me to help direct to a certain extent. That’s a nice way for me to work. If a film comes that I really feel strongly about and I think I can do some service to, direct it, make it, whatever the case may be, I’ll do it. But I’m not dying to jump into another film, that’s not the way I want to work. It’s just such an emotional investment. I’ll just see what happens, right now I just want to shoot.
iW: What was the biggest disagreement you had making the film?
Kauffman: There are certain scenes that we disagreed on. But I don’t think we had major ideological disagreements.
Briski: We did fight a lot, but when we calmed down, we always knew that there was a right way. I don’t believe in compromise, I believe there is a goal we are trying to reach, a truth, and in the film we did it.
iW: Congratulations on just being named on the Oscar documentary shortlist. How does that feel? You’ve won something at every festival where I’ve seen you, but you always seem surprised and humbled, surely at this point you’re expecting the accolades.
Kauffman: At Sundance, everyone kept saying, “I think you guys are going to get the audience award.” And we just didn’t believe that. It’s great, you hope for these things but you never actually expect it. The Oscar list was a surprise.
Briski: Of course I’m honored about the Oscar news, but I’m also thinking that this is such an incredible forum [to education people about Kids with Cameras] so I’m really excited about that. This could actually do a lot.