Born Into Brothels documents the lives of a few of the more unfortunate children on earth: eight boys and girls, ages 10 to 14, in Calcutta, India, who were born to prostitutes and have been raised with the expectation that they’ll continue in that soul-killing trade. Watching the movie, which has been showered with praise (and now an Oscar nomination) since it premiered at Sundance a year ago, I presumed that the codirectors, Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, would find the humanity in an inhumane situation. But Born Into Brothels is an uneasy mixture of inquiry and opportunism. The children, many of whom are quite charming, come off as resilient and resourceful, sad but not blunted. Yet we rarely get to witness them interacting with their mothers — a relationship you’d assume would be crucial to this portrait. Briski came to Calcutta in 1998 and spent five years living there, yet for all her efforts, Born Into Brothels hasn’t much depth or structure. The film angelicizes these children far more than it illuminates them, in no small measure because it views their parents — to put it plainly — as dismissable prostitute trash.
Then again, Briski, a tall, se-vere Brit who appears on screen for much of the film, may have other agendas. She gives the kids cameras and encourages them to photograph the messy, vibrant squalor of Calcutta. She then auctions off the photos at Sotheby’s in New York and uses the proceeds to try to get some of the kids access to boarding schools. A noble quest — except that the film becomes the story of Zana Briski’s nobility. When she’s required to get a child an HIV test as part of the application process, she’s so high on her mission that she has the nerve to treat the request as a pesky imposition. Born Into Brothels is designed to be ”inspirational,” yet it shortchanges the complex reality of the lives it makes such a show of saving.