Saturday, August 11, 2007

Born Into Brothels

There was a recent discussion on one of my online communities about documentaries, and someone mentioned Born Into Brothels. I have a visceral reaction to this film, and my post below was my response:

I personally have serious issues with the way the documentary conspicuously left out the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC), a 60,000-member sex worker organization in the Sonagachi district of Calcutta, where the documentary was filmed. The absence of any commentary whatsoever on DMSC is highly suspicious, as is the fact that Ms. Briski paints such a drudgery-filled picture of life in the brothels, leaving the viewer with the impression that all sex workers' children must suffer so dreadfully.

Add to that the fact that surely she must not have done any research into the district before she began filming (although I find that almost impossible to believe, which makes her film even more spurious*) or she would have known about the DMSC's having established schools specifically for the children of sex workers (35 schools), as the children are usually ostracized in regular schools. (The DMSC, which was originally started under the SHIP project by Dr. Samrajit Jana, had identified schools as a core need as early as 1995 when the SHIP project began.)

Furthermore, she never requested permission from the parents of the children to film them, and deliberately kept DMSC ignorant of her project. I believe that she "overlooked" the DMSC because it would create holes in her documentary.

Lastly, I echo many critics who maintain that she perpetuates and capitalizes on the typical ethnocentric myth of white people saving brown people from themselves, and this bothers me probably more than anything else.

In short, I do not like the film.

*Ms. Briski had been in Sonagachi since 1998, originally to research and do a documentary on sex workers there. Ignorance of the DMSC, as far as I can tell, would have been impossible if she had been there for that long. In my opinion, she had a story she wanted to tell, and was going to stick to it no matter what.

Here is a quote from a gentleman who helped to work on the film:

Partha Banerjee worked on the film as an interpreter. Upon seeing the final product, and then hearing that the film had won a nomination for Best Documentary from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS, the Oscar award people), Mr. Banerjee wrote a letter to AMPAS explaining why the film should not be so recognized. His letter addresses some of the questions raised by the film. In it, he writes,

…I take issues with the often-explicit presumption by both the filmmakers and
the U.S. media personalities (including the nominators at AMPAS) that the
efforts by Ms. Briski and Mr. Kauffman were able to uplift the children from the
poverty and destitution they live in. In fact, that presumption is not true. I
visited these children a number of times during the last couple of years and
found out that almost all the children are now living even a worse life than
they were in before Ms. Briski began working with them…At the same time, their
sex worker parents believed that with so much unrestricted access to their
secretive lives they had provided to the filmmakers, and that too, so generously
(were their written consent ever requested and received by the filmmakers?),
there would be a way their children would also be sharing some of the glories
the filmmakers are now shining in. …The conjecture drawn by the makers of Born
into Brothels that it was only them that were responsible for any humanity and
benevolence doled out to these children and their parents is simply absurd.
(February 1, 2005) source
Here is a critique of the documentary by the Scarlet Alliance, a sex workers' organization in Australia:

Born Into Brothels

Born Into Brothels has won an Oscar and been seen by audiences all the world over. However, as reviewer Jenni G says below, there is nothing positive about portraying sex working mothers as abusive to their children - or purpetuating the myth that all sex workers' kids need to be 'saved.'

Here is an excellent, very in-depth review from SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Reflection and Action). I personally love it because it mentions Spivak's and Mohanty's critique of "orientalizing Indian women as helpless, exotic, and ‘other’ in relation to normative, empowered, white Western women." (I have always wanted to write a paper using Spivak's "subaltern" discourse to critique anti-prostitution feminists' discourses.):

Born Into Saving Brothel Children

Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels ignores local organizing
efforts and instead gives us more images of white saviors.

Here is a critique from Dhaka's Independent:

Saving brothel children

Excerpt: 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...


Blogger DreamActivist said...

We have more "damaging" info now about BxB. Our original allegations based on facts are now reconfirmed: the movie is an opportunistic and highly biased misportrayal of the sex workers, their children and the solidarity movement in general. I spoke with DMSC a number of times recently. They are frustrated and angry with the movie. The movie makers had lied to them about the purpose of filming the sex workers and their children; and the Oscar-winners never bothered to tell the sex workers either or ask for any formal permission while filming their private lives. There are many other serious flaws and illegalities. They must be exposed.

5:08 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

Ah yes, Dreamactivist! So true. I will be posting a new post about some info I have just discovered. Please do post more about it and what you know, and thank you for visiting!

3:52 PM  
Blogger DreamActivist said...

Here's a new (Sept. 5, 2007) oped on Calcutta. Great article. Loved it. Only small correction: Calcutta, a British-ly distorted name, is now officially known as Kolkata, its original name.

Really glad Chitrita Banerji mentioned the media. I remember how Christiane Amanpour of CNN trashed Kolkata during Mother Teresa's funeral reporting from there.

In our present context, Born Into Brothels carries the same White missionary-savior dogma playing out a big part, along with all the lies and illegalities.

We'll discuss more.

September 5, 2007
Op-Ed Contributor
Poor Calcutta
Cambridge, Mass.

ONE morning in January 1997, I walked into my office at a nonprofit
group here after a visit to my hometown, Calcutta. A very senior
colleague, whom I would have, until then, characterized as being the
"sensitive" sort, greeted me: "Welcome back. And how is everyone in Calcutta still starving and being looked after by Mother Teresa?"

At first I thought this might be a bad attempt at humor, but I soon
realized that my colleague was seriously inquiring about my city's
suffering humanity and its ministering angel -- the only images Calcutta
evoked for him and countless others in the West. When Mother Teresa died
eight months later, 10 years ago today, foreign dignitaries and the
Western news media descended on the city. The reports on the funeral
portrayed a city filled with starving orphans, wretched slums and dying
people abandoned on the streets, except for the fortunate ones rescued by
Mother Teresa.

They described a city I didn't recognize as the place where I had
spent the first 20 years of my life. There was no mention of Calcutta's
beautiful buildings and educated middle class, or its history of
religious tolerance and its vibrant literary and cultural life. Besides,
other Indian cities also have their share of poverty, slums and
destitution, as would be expected in a country where a third of the population
lives on $1 a day -- for example, more than half of Mumbai residents live
in slums, far more than in Calcutta. Why were they not equally damned
in the eyes of the world?

The answer was that none of them served for seven decades as the
adopted home base for a saintly European crusader whose work could succeed
only if it was disproportionately magnified. It was an instance of spin
in which the news media colluded "voluntarily or not" with a
religious figure who was as shrewd as any fund-raising politician, as is
evident from the global expansion of her organization. For Calcutta
natives like me, however, Mother Teresa's charity also evoked the colonial
past -- she felt she knew what was best for the third world masses,
whether it was condemning abortion or offering to convert those who were
on the verge of death.

After the funeral, I comforted myself with the possibility that Mother
Teresa's death might redress the balance of perception. Calcutta,
once called the second city of the British Empire, would again be seen as
a pulsing metropolis of 14 million that has survived despite being
twice slammed by huge influxes of refugees, once after the partition of
1947 and again during the Bangladesh war of independence in 1971. In the
absence of a missionary who had never allowed her compassion to be
de-linked from Catholic dogma, I hoped the world would recognize that
Calcutta has not merely survived, it has battled tremendous odds without
losing its soul.

Ten years and one beatification later, however, the relentless
hagiography of the Catholic Church and the peculiar tunnel vision of the news
media continue to equate Calcutta with the twinned entities of
destitution and succor publicized by Mother Teresa. With cultish fervor, her
organization, the Missionaries of Charity, promotes her as an icon of
mercy. Meanwhile, countless unheralded local organizations work for the
needy without the glamour of a Nobel Prize or of impending sainthood.

Charity need not be inconsistent with clarity. Calcutta is a modern
Indian city where poverty and inequality coexist with measurably
increasing prosperity, expanding opportunities, cautious optimism and, above
all, pride in its unique character. Mother Teresa might have meant well,
but she furthered her mission by robbing Calcutta of its richly nuanced
identity while pretending to love it.


11:52 AM  
Blogger Holly said...

Thank you for posting that article, Dreamactivist! I very much agreed with her viewpoints, and you are so right about the parallels. I had a look through your different web presences, and enjoyed reading about you and what you do.

2:00 PM  
Blogger DreamActivist said...

Thank you for your kind comments, and hope to keep in touch. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help about the BxB scam -- writing, speaking, etc. -- things I've been doing for the past two years.

8:18 PM  
Anonymous isabella blue said...

"Avijit, 19, began studying in the U.S. three years ago. He is currently finishing his senior year at a private high school. Over the past two summers, he has participated in prestigious film programs through the Sundance Institute and NYU Tisch. He plans to attend university in the U.S. this fall and is interested in studying both medicine and film."

A damn shame, isn't it? Poor exploited Avijit! Lol.

Holly your post is a little slanted, no? The one sided political feel to your ideas surrounding this movie leaves me feeling like I just read one of Rush Limbaugh's books.

It's OK that some sex work is not "delicious" and this fact doesn't have to be feared by advocates for decrim.

I would like to do my own research on Born into Brothels and draw up a post reflecting the positive and the negative aspects of the film.

****Lastly, and most importantly, (for this debate, anyway)Zana Briski is a freaking Iraqi Jew! So much for the white saving the brown. ;-)

Love you bunches
Isabella ox

12:24 PM  
Anonymous isabella blue said...

dreamactivist is pissed off because the film brings out the not so pretty business of prostitution in "Kolkata" and you don't like the film because it sheds poor light on prostitution. You both completely ignore the children. Ignore the children and any good that came out of the film and the money that was raised for their education. No respect for the five years that woman spent helping those kids get an education. It's terribly evident that you both care only about yourselves and your own causes.

1:09 PM  
Blogger Isabella said...

upon further reflection, I think dreamactivist is a nutter. ;-)

11:18 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home