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Pictures Worth Thousands of Words

1 Aug, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner



Photographer Zana Briski went to the Calcutta brothels to live with the women and photograph and understand their lives. Along the way, she got close to the prostitutes' children.

The children were fascinated with her photography and thirsty for knowledge, so she taught them how to shoot pictures and passed out cameras. The result is Born Into Brothels, which shows the rest of the world the children's lives through their own eyes. The film's journey from concept to reality was long and arduous.

“[Briski] asked me several times to do the film,” said co-director Ross Kauffman. “At first I said ‘no' because I knew how much of a risk it would be, how difficult it would be. But after I saw some footage that Zana had shot and I was taken with the kids, I was in Calcutta in two weeks.”

Like Briski, Kauffman found the children irresistible.

“When I met the kids the first day I sort of fell in love with them, and they fell in love with me,” he said. “I just want people to fall in love with the kids just a fraction of how much I fell in love with them. It's really gratifying when people come up to me and everyone gravitates to certain ones of the kids. They want to help.”

And that, after all, was the point.

“The photography is just a means to empower them. As much as they love photography, they want to go to school, they want to learn. One of them wants to be a doctor and another wants to work with children.”

Briski and Kauffman funded most of the filmmaking process with their credit cards but later got grants that covered about a quarter of the movie's budget.

Later, the filmmakers started Kids With Cameras, a charity that helps empower children with cameras.

The DVD, out Sept. 20 (prebook Aug. 18) includes commentaries from filmmakers and their subjects.

“I showed the movie to the kids. Within the first 10 seconds, I knew I had to shoot this,” Kauffman said. “The kids' video commentary is really them watching the film and giving their hilarious insights. They were excited, but they also understood the film; they got it. There was a lot of laughter, but there were a lot of tears as well when they watched the film.”

A release strategy designed to maximize attention for the movie seems to have worked.

“The whole idea was to play the festival circuit and then hold off the commercial release until late in the year. We didn't open it wide until the weekend before the nominations came out,” ThinkFilm CEO Jeff Sackman said. “If it hadn't got the nomination, we were dead because of all the stuff that did get nominated.”

But even after winning an Academy Award for best documentary, the theatrical run had to end.

“The DVD is the last stop on this amazing ride we have had,” Kauffman said. “We want it to be as good as humanly possible because this is what is going to live on.”

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