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Born Into Brothels

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An intense portrayal of life at the extremes, Born into Brothels is a movie that challenges our perception of human resilience. The documentary takes place in Calcutta, India, home to one of the oldest populations and religious doctrines in the world. India is a country with an extraordinary history, yet suffers from massive overpopulation, environmental degradation, extreme poverty, and religious strife. (https://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/in.html) Calcutta is the second largest city in India and one of the largest in the world, the square mileage of its metropolitan area measured at 228.5 sq mi. Within this unforgiving landscape is the red light district, a city within a city, known to openly display many of society's most forbidden practices. Here, women have few options other than "walking the line" (prostitution) or cleaning houses, and many of the men suffer from drug abuse or alcoholism. Crime, murder, and HIV/AIDS are prevalent and families with as many as of seven people live in spaces no bigger than most Americans, living rooms. In the red light district, not only do individuals suffer in this harsh reality, every aspect of existence is tainted by its acute condition.

Born into Brothels however, is a story about the power of human imagination and determination. It chronicles the amazing lives of eight youth living in one of Calcutta's most notorious red light districts. Co-directed by Zana Briski, Born into Brothels follows Briski's efforts to teach photography to and access better educational opportunities for this group of children. The movies' main characters are the kids from the red light district. Kochi, age 10, is strong and resilient and uses her camera to escape her surroundings. Avijit, age 12, is a true artist, the most talented of the children and has an equally talented ego. Shanti, age 11, loves to photograph and even is crafty with the video camera, yet she is somewhat of a primadona. Manik, age 10, has a very gentle spirit towards others and loves to fly kites, but he can be fairly lazy. Gour, age 13, has one of the best senses of humor and is the most socially aware of the kids. Puja, age 11, is always laughing and smiling and has a sense of humor rivaled only by her best friend Gour. While Puja is part of a regal family in Calcutta, the threat of having to join the line is still very real. Tapasi, age 11, wants to be a teacher and uses her camera to show the harsh reality of life. Suchitra, age 14, is the oldest of the group and a gifted photographer. One of Suchitra's photos was chosen as the cover for Amnesty International's 2003 calendar. Because of her age, Suchitra faces the very real possibility of having to join the line any day.

Born into Brothels not only offers a look into the lives of eight youth, the movie explores fundamental ideologies regarding the status of women in that society. Due to religious belief dating back centuries, women in many parts of India are considered second-class citizens. Most marriages for women are arranged by families and women have almost no means of protest. Women in India are routinely bought and sold as early as age eight and many are forced to become sex workers. These sex workers are socially shunned, and since prostitution is illegal, the women are extremely susceptible to extortion, blackmail, rape, or murder by local gangsters, pimps and the police. (Vater, http://www.tomvater.com/sonagachi.html) There are an estimated sixty to seventy-five thousand sex workers within Calcutta alone. (Vater, http://www.tomvater.com/sonagachi.html) These pressures are an hourly predicament for the young girls in Briski's photography class. Many of the acts performed by sex workers take place in the women is living spaces, and children unable to escape to the roofs of the brothels, must hear the acts taking place. Through many of their personal interviews, the girls routinely comment on the possibility of having to "join the line", and many express that they want a better life for themselves. The movie highlights the internal conflict of the young girls as developmentally; they begin to acquire a self identity that contradicts social learning or behaviorism theory. Most of the youth want to be their own individual and to better themselves by education, but do disrespect the women and men living these lifestyles.

Another theme interwoven into the story and equally compelling was the relationship between the people and the environment of Calcutta. Stretched to the limit is a considerable understatement for many residents in India, especially the habitants of the red light districts. The movie begins by showing the conditions of the brothels; living quarters are as small as an average American bedroom, and are usually occupied by as many as of seven individuals. There is no privacy, little room for personal belongings, and half eaten plates of food are stacked on the floor next to the unwashed cooking pots. Outside, an opening scene shows alleys teaming with rats and starving animals. The lacking traffic system in the central metropolitan areas of Calcutta is exemplify by a six hour bus trip for the children to travel thirty miles. The movie clearly shows a direct correlation between environment and psychological development. Very few people develop beyond the adolescence stage of Erikson's psychosocial stages, largely in part because their environment is so harsh and people are force to remain in constant survival mode.

Even in light of the sub human conditions most of the youth live in, the main theme that stood out in the film was the resiliency shown by this group of amazing children. In one of the first scenes of the film, we are introduced to some of the children by witnessing them playing and taking photographs in the streets. This playful youthfulness as a theme starts early and continues throughout the film, even in instances such as when Avijita loses his mother after her pimp burns her to death. The children show a remarkable ability to completely understand the situation in which they live, yet still rely on the magic of youth to counteract its effects. A perfect example takes place as one of the youth gets water from the local well. As an older women shouts profanity at the girl, she says that if you can accept that life is about pain and suffering, then you will be able to live happily. All the Calcutta youth display the same wonderment that American child claim as birth right, while seeming thoroughly appreciative for the chance to simply be introduced to a camera. Many of the youth started displaying such strong internal loci of control as the movie evolved and really took responsibility for their own futures.

The young people

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