A colorful, well-meaning documentary that comes to theatres after picking up nearly every single film festival award possible over the previous year, Born Into Brothels tells the story of a young photographer (codirector Zana Briski, sporting an indiscriminately Englishy accent) who spends several months in the red light district of Calcutta, teaching photography to a handful of children whose mothers are all prostitutes. The children - jolly, energetic, and often very talented with a camera - take pictures of street life in their abominable yet strangely beautiful surroundings, and Briski raises money for their education by selling their photos at auctions in New York and London.
It sure is a great cause, and Briski is a highly admirable woman. But how is the movie? Well, it's... colorful and well-meaning. Appropriately, it's nicely shot, and the soundtrack is wonderful. All in all, not a bad moviegoing experience. But to be honest, it plays out more like a promotional video for Briski's charity, Kids With Cameras, and less like a movie in its own right. (It's quite telling that the official web site for the film is actually a site for Kids With Cameras - there is very little information about the film itself.) As a means of raising awareness of these talented kids and Briski's charity, it succeeds. But unlike, say, the amazing documentary Spellbound, there is a weird lack of drama about these children's futures. They live in dire poverty, their parents are negligent at best, but they seem content enough - and indeed, for the filthy hole that Calcutta's red light district is, Briski and her codirector (and former boyfriend) Ross Kauffman still make it look exotic. Even when the film finally hones in on one especially gifted young boy and his struggle to get a passport to visit Amsterdam for a children's photo program, I never had the feeling that there was much at stake. There's no tension at all.
So while it sounds strange to say, I actually wish Born Into Brothels was more manipulative in its storytelling. I would have had more of an emotional connection to these children. Instead, it offers only maddening glimpses of some of the (in my opinion) more interesting young subjects - which is perplexing, considering the film's relatively short runtime of 85 minutes. One sensitive young boy in particular, who speaks very eloquently about the misery of his surroundings, is shamefully given only brief screen time, while the other kids, who are content to just giggle and play, hog Briski's camera. Again, it's an okay film, but I think you're better off just donating $10 to Kids With Cameras instead of buying a ticket to see Born Into Brothels.