A missionary enterprise

Print edition : April 22, 2005

The key elements of Zana Briski's Oscar-winning Born Into Brothels are questionable on points of fact, but these distortions pale into insignificance beside the multiple ways in which the documentary demeans the sex workers of Sonagachi.

PRAVEEN SWAMI in Washington D C

Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman with their Oscar for this year's best documentary.-JEFF HAYNES/AFP

IF Born Into Brothels were remade as an adventure-thriller in the tradition of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, its posters might read: "New York film-maker Zana Briski sallies forth among the natives to save souls."

In some fundamental senses, the decision of the Motion Pictures Academy of Arts and Sciences to give Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Born Into Brothels this year's award for the best documentary tells us more about that body's politics than the inherent value - if such a thing exists - of the film. Briski, of course, does not pretend to be a latter-day Mother Teresa; indeed, she affects a posture of wry distance from the missionaries who occasionally appear in the film. Yet, to someone with a master's degree in theology from Cambridge University, the perils of the project ought to have been obvious. Briski carries a camera, not the cross; her message is not the Bible, but the redemptive power of art. All the same, Briski is more like a stereotypical missionary than she would care to admit. She seeks to save the souls of sex workers' children; with the community from which her subjects come, with people, she is less concerned.

Briski and her collaborator Ross Kauffman tell a simple story: her own. In 1998, Briski began working with children in Kolkata's red-light district, Sonagachi, teaching them to use a simple point-and-shoot camera. The children responded to her classes, producing works of extraordinary creativity; one of them won an international award. In Briski's self-perception, she "developed a relationship with many of the kids who, often terrorised and abused, were drawn to the rare human companionship she offered". The documentary traces Briski's efforts to remove the children from their horrific surroundings and have them admitted in boarding institutions where they may receive quality education. Making the film, Briski claimed, involved "overcoming nearly insurmountable odds - brothel owners, pimps, police, local politicians and organised crime syndicate [sic.]".

Puja, the 14-year-old who features in Briski's film, poses with a camera.-

Frontline's investigation into some of the claims made by Briski has shown that key elements of the Born Into Brothels story are questionable on points of fact. Whereas Briski suggests that the children received little or no education before her efforts to have them admitted to boarding schools, Frontline found that all of them were going to school when the documentary was made. While the children involved in Briski's project were delighted with the creative opportunities and the sense of purpose she had given them, it was clear she was far from being a solitary saint among the wretched of Kolkata. Several non-governmental organisations provided a welter of services that had significantly ameliorated the horrific conditions of organised sex trade in Kolkata, in comparison with other major urban centres in South Asia.

Frontline's investigation adds to a small but growing feeling of disquiet provoked by the film. Partha Banerjee, a New York resident closely associated with the making of the film, has, for example, pointed to the exploitative character of the enterprise and asserted that the children it represented were worse off after the documentary was made. It is hard to know what the children themselves would make of the film. Briski has said that the film will not be screened in India, a decision she claimed was meant to protect the privacy of her subjects. She was quoted by the news portal rediff.com as saying this was because "she had promised to protect the identities of the prostitutes from police and politicians" - a specious claim, since those allegedly dangerous police and politicians would have no trouble purchasing the DVD version, due shortly for release, or, indeed, in watching it at film festivals in India, where it will be screened. Sonagachi, though, is not Briski's cause - and that is just the beginning of the problems posed by Born Into Brothels.

ERRORS of fact pale into insignificance beside the multiple ways in which Born Into Brothels demeans the women who live and work at Sonagachi. On their website, Briski and Kauffman note that the "most stigmatised people in Kolkata's red-light district are not the prostitutes, but their children". In their advocacy of Sonagachi's children, however, the directors have turned the tables on their mothers (and fathers). We see them at their worst: drugged, screaming at the children, shooing them away when clients arrive, fighting with one another, obstructing Briski's efforts to give her students a future. If the children of Sonagachi enjoy moments of intimacy or comfort with their parents, we are not privy to them. It may just be possible that this is, in fact, the reality of the lives of the children Briski documents. No effort, however, is made to lead the audience into the shoes of the sex workers: Born Into Brothels reduces them to props.

Watching it, audiences might never realise that there is another Sonagachi: one where sex workers have organised for their rights, won battles against police harassment, registered significant gains against Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and where there is a vibrant movement for the legalization of the profession. Kolkata is home, for example, to the Sonagachi Acquired Immune Defeciency Syndrome Project, one of the largest and most successful community-run intervention projects in the world. Set up with government assistance, the Sonagachi Project was spearheaded by Smarajit Jana, an epidemiologist who trained several sex workers to act as `peer-educators'. Soon, noted Paroma Basu in a 2002 article, "hundreds of women were refusing unprotected sex, even if their clients offered to pay more". While in 1992 a government survey showed a mere 2.7 per cent of 450 sex workers were using condoms, that figure had gone up to 69.3 per cent within two years. Only 9 per cent of Sonagachi's sex workers were HIV-positive in 2002, compared with upwards of 70 per cent in Mumbai - and that too in 1997.

By design or otherwise, Briski and Kauffman censor out the well-known story of the Sonagachi sex workers' efforts to gain democratic rights, notably the legalisation of their profession - and of their growing success in securing rights. In 1995, sex-workers in Sonagachi set up the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, a trade union that now has over 60,000 members across West Bengal. The Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee has fought not only for decriminalisation, but also for the right to negotiate wages and working conditions. It has had considerable success in mitigating the rampant harassment of sex workers; Kolkata, where Briski so heroically overcame the police and organised crime to make her documentary, is one of the safest centres for sex workers in India. Last year, Kolkata Mayor Subrata Mukherjee threw his weight behind the legalisation demand, pointing out that two centuries ago there existed a rudimentary permit system. His remarks provoked a furore, but the fact that such ideas were publicly circulated constitutes a major step forward.

Avijit and Manik, whose mothers make a living as sex workers, browse through Briski's book Kid with Camera.-

West Bengal's government, where it does appear in Briski's account of Sonagachi, is villainous. School officials ask for impossible paperwork to admit the children; bureaucrats obstruct Avijit's quest for a passport for his travel to Amsterdam to receive a photography award. The possibility that officials are bound to take special care to protect minors from leaving the country, particularly when their parents are not the ones applying for a passport, is not even raised. It would be intriguing, for example, to see how the passport authorities in Washington D.C. would respond to a Briski-like enterprise if it is led by an unknown South Asian with a white child in tow.

Briski's variation on the theme of oriental despotism fits her audience's political prejudices. Other commentators in the United States who have researched the subject, however, came to very different conclusions about the West Bengal government's integrity. Noting that both Kerala and West Bengal had low numbers of AIDS cases among sex workers, Raney Aronson, the producer of a 2004 television documentary, said that while "whether this has to do directly with a communist-led government is the big question, I think it might".

PERHAPS the most disturbing aspect of the film is its advocacy of removal: the contention, as Briski and Kauffman put it, is that as long as the children remain in Sonagachi, "these kids have little possibility of escaping their mother's fate or for creating another type of life". It is here that Briski's silence on the struggle of Sonagachi sex workers to transform their own lives is of particular significance: it is, in her view, of no consequence. Avijit's journey to Holland for his photography award represents, in Briski's argument, one kind of redemption; boarding schools another kind. Out of their mothers' homes, out of their rotting tenements, out of Sonagachi, out of Kolkata, and out of India, the argument goes, the children of the brothels may find freedom and fulfilment. The notion resonates powerfully with received middle-class wisdom on class, caste and criminality.

It is worth considering, therefore, the long and dishonourable history of removal - something that neither Born Into Brothels nor a largely sycophantic media have done. For over six decades from 1911, part-aboriginal children in Australia were, as state policy, forcibly removed from their mothers and placed in degrading institutions. The programme was born out of fears of miscegenation and its consequences for white supremacy, though its advocates did not understand removal in quite these terms. For one politician, Paul Hasluck, it made eminent sense that "where half-caste children are found living in camps full of full-blood natives, they should if possible be removed to better care so that they have a better opportunity for education".

Removal was not restricted to Australia. Until 1978, a large percentage of children born to Native American families in some regions of the United States were removed from their homes and placed by the state in the care of non-Native American families. In Minnesota, for example, an average of one of every four Indian children younger than age one was adopted by a non-Indian couple. Racism, in retrospect, quite clearly underpinned removal. White judges and social workers, however, saw child-rearing practices in Native American homes as militating against the best interests of the children. Removal, in both Australia and North America, had the support of social reformers and well-meaning figures in the Church: they were, after all, as Briski and Kauffman now put it, giving the children a "possibility of escaping their mothers' fate or for creating another type of life".

South Asia has its own forms of removal, sadly uncontested - one reason, perhaps, why much of the Indian media have greeted Born Into Brothels with either nationalistic and parochial ire or with undisguised reverence. Adivasi children are shunted into Hindu missionary-run schools, for example, or poor Muslim children into madrassas where they may be remade in the image of their benefactors. It is important to note that Briski is not dealing with a special group of children who need to be removed from their homes; her students are representative of all the children in the community. Any criticism directed at such charity meets, always, with the predictable response that the children are at least fed and clothed - an indisputable virtue that, nonetheless, diminishes not a whit from the real need for economic reform and wider educational access in their own communities. If Briski wanted evidence that the children of Sonagachi could beat the odds and give meaning to their lives, all she had to do was turn to Mrinal Kanti Dutta: the son of a sex worker, Dutta was a key figure in the mobilisation of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee. Others have made lives for themselves elsewhere: but there is space for none of this in Briski's missionary enterprise.