'Saving' Children : Documentary Born into Brothels ignores local organizing efforts

This piece originally appeared in Samar 19: Spring, 2005

Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids, released theatrically in December 2004, won the 2005 Oscar for Best Documentary. The filmmakers describe their film as “A tribute to the resiliency of childhood and the restorative power of art, Born into Brothels is a portrait of several unforgettable children who live in the red light district of Calcutta, where their mothers work as prostitutes. Zana Briski, a New York-based photographer, gives each of the children a camera and teaches them to look at the world with new eyes.” 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.

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Svati Shah