Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

My Discomfort with Born into Brothels--and Perhaps the Activist Documentary Form in General

mbeale's picture

     When I first checked out a film called Born Into Brothels from the library I immediately felt anxious about its point of view, and from skimming the DVD cover that read in bold-faced text, "Uplifting!", that sentiment did not seem like it was going to change. Not to say that I didn't appreciate a chance to look into the lives of a group of young children that frankly, it had not occurred to me existed--it was that the documentary seemed to so determinedly manipulate what little access I was being given into that of a role I was not free to pick.

    As evidenced by subtleties such as the "Uplifting!" comment, I was left with little space to come to my own conclusion about what I had just seen. This documentary was not to bring pure awareness to the lives of the children and their families, it was to affect and appease its Western audience. as a viewer, I felt thrown to the mercy of the documenters' views and exceedingly uncomfortable watching how little exposure was given to the actual prostitutes and their relationships with their children, husbands, and the community in which they lived as well as the communities they were constantly being turned away from. As we discussed in class, we witnessed the very intentional showcasing of abusive interactions of the mothers with their children instead an honest look into how those sort of relationships form under the pressure of institutional prostitution, or even a positive scene to contrast the violence. By the end of this film, the viewer can easily still feel a member of a community that would still alienate and dismiss these women as untouchable prostitutes--but a community that would still gladly take their children.


Rebecca A.Z.'s picture

whoa hold your horses

I'm not sure if you've noticed but it does say that they'rr not allowed to film most parts, and if you saw extra parts on the DVD, one girl was not talked about anymore until the reunion because her mother hadn't wanted her to be in the film. This documentary, was made by my the brother of a school teacher I don't have class with, Mr. Kauffman, hence Ross Kauffman in the credits, who filmed as much as he had the chance to.
Additionally, when you read about violence and such, that doesn't mean that it happens to every person in India. That's like expecting every British person to say "crumpets and tea please" or expecting every Chinese person to know karate, and so on. Think about how he filmed the corners, clearly they were in a vehicle, so he must of hidden it but made the lens clear so that he can film them without their own knowledge. I asked my teacher and he said that he his it in his backpack. Documentaries are to expose the truth, not to cover it up. What documentaries really include things about how one of the kids mother died by a staged "accident" anyone could've easily gone along with it. Avijit, I believe it was his mother that had died that way by an "accidental" kerosene explosion. As far as it comes to other things, you need to do your research. This film is more for people who have some type of grasp and concept and background knowledge of what India is.

colleenaryanne's picture

Scripted to fit a bias?

I have been wondering how the people who directed and filmed this documentary got permission to film in this space.  One of the opening lines of the film says that it is very difficult to photograph the red light district, because the people working there don't want to be known or potentially get in trouble for their occupation.  And yet, as they say this, they are filming street corner after street corner of the red light district. Perhaps the reason we don't get to see any real interactions between the parents and the children is that they simply weren't able to film the sex workers because of their reservations about being on film.  The children were in the photography program and the film basically followed the teacher and her children, but perhaps they weren't able to go furter and follow the mothers with the children too often.

I do agree, however, that what they did show of the interactions between the mother and children was selectively negetive and abusive.  This documentary was far from unbiased, and the director was clearly trying to get his opinion about these children across to the audience.  I do wonder, however, how the filmmaker was able to get into the brothels and film this documentary in the first place. Much like melal said, what happens if this documentary gets into the wrong hands and the people involved get into trouble? The children in the future, as well as the parents and sex workers filmed, are in potential danger because of this film, as they mentioned at the beginning of the documentary. 

I wonder who gives permission for these people to film this private aspect of these people's lives.  I also have to wonder with every documentary how much of it is candid and how much is scripted.  There are a lot of clips from interviews, but also the "glimpses" into the lives of these people could very easily be staged or reenacted. I'm not saying that that is the calse with Born Into Brothels, but sometimes I have to wonder with any kind of "reality" film how much is reality, how much is scripted, and how much is edited to fit a bias. 

Kristy's picture

If I'm not mistaken the film

If I'm not mistaken the film was originally supposed to be about the prostitution rather than the children but without their permission and with them hiding from the cameras it is hard to film a whole movie. Really the documentary was about another subject (the lives of the prostitutes themselves) but grew into something entirely different.

melal's picture

Humanism or cruelty?

mbeale, I have the same feeling as you do. I do like documentaries a lot. Unlike fiction-based movies, documentaries intend to show audience some aspect of reality. I still remember how excited I was when I watched a documentary about marine science, as if I really dived into the deep ocean exploring a world that I never entered in daily life. For me, documentaries enable me to experience so many things that I may never have chance to experience in my real life. But after watching Born Into Brothels, I wondered if the movie can be called as a documentary and if it is the best way to tell those children’s stories. As many people mentioned, this movie is not fairly objective as most documentaries. Some children are highlighted by the director, which I think is unfair to the other children. It is true that more people began to feel thankful for their lives after watching the movie, but this thankfulness is obtained by knowing others’ unfortunates. Is this way of exposing the lives of children living in brothels great humanitarianism or cruelty? Do we give those children have choices? When they grow up, will they want people to know that they used to be in the documentary? If they knew that their lives are exposed to the world as subjects of debate, what would they feel? I don’t know if the director have ever thought about these questions, but I think I will remind myself whenever I want to offer help to those people who have experiences like the children in the movie.