“Brothels” nabs Oscar; “Terrorist” comes up short

“Born Into Brothels” picked up the Academy Award for documentary feature, and filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski were on-hand to accept the award. In case you missed it, here’s a Quicktime video of the presentation, and acceptance speech (2.3 MB, 2:20 mins.).

Ashvin Kumar’s “The Little Terrorist” lost out to “Wasp” in the category of live action short. Here’s a brief clip of the presentation, where you can briefly spot Kumar (900 KB, 50 sec.). Spain’s “The Sea Inside” took home the award for foreign language film, beating out South Africa’s “Yesterday,” which was produced by Anant Singh.

Previous posts: The award for the most sepia film goes to…, The Little Terrorist, “Born Into Brothels” earns Oscar nom, & Kids with cameras

38 thoughts on ““Brothels” nabs Oscar; “Terrorist” comes up short

  1. Great!! Now that “Brothels ..” documentary won the award, people will come to know that Calcautta is home to the pitiful condition of children born in brothels. Lets add that to the nice introduction that Mother Teresa has given to the world of Calcutta.. A city of lepers and other extremely poor people living in hellish condition. So thats it, I think this officially makes Calcutta the worst place on Earth (kind of like hell). Two western movie makers got to pretend felling of overwhelm in the fake speech and Calcutta’s image further maligned. Countless millions of dollors worth of loss occured to the businesses of Calcutta and in turn the people that they can hire, of Calcutta and India in general, but…… Hey, two western movie makers got a f**ing stupid award out of it and suckers clapped.

  2. RC -

    I have been to Kolkata on several occasions and as a “native” returning back to her land, I find it very naive of you to think that the staggering poverty surrounding one in this “City of Joy” is something that shouldn’t be talked about, especially through artistic mediums. Poverty is endemic to many parts of India, but unfortunately, the northeast section (Bihar, Bengal, Orissa, Assam) suffers from a large backlog of bureaucracy. A general callousness amongst the middle and upper classes also perpetuates the stigma of poverty.

    Poverty exists in America, too, but we’re better at hiding it here (i.e., J. Daley sending the blacks of Chicago down to the “projects” on the South-Side, which are now being torn down and bereaving the city of any affordable housing, thereby pushing low-income groups that happen to be minority downstate into rural communities).

    I saw “Born Into Brothels” a year ago at the Sundance Film Festival. Briski and Kauffman captured a sincere, un-exploitative glance at children caught in interminable poverty. It’s to their credit that they created an organization (kids-with-cameras.org) to help fund their subjects’ education. After viewing the film, I walked up to Briski herself and gave her my heartfelt thanks for creating such an inspiring work.

  3. Amelie-Freak, I bet you every single penny that I have that 99.9% of Americans dont know that Calcutta was and still is a place of intellectual discourse, pioneering in modern Indian literature and the place where the Indian Freedome struggle started. But they surely will know that its place full of lepers … not the city of Birlas !!! If you are really and I mean REALLY honest you would agree that Calcutta has an image problem. I think whenever a mediocre western documentary maker wants to win a stupid fing award, he/she goes to Calcutta is pile some more sh on it… I think some time like Ward Churchill says …some people will push back !!!

  4. Yes, well, thanks to Jonny Quest and his “Calcutta Adventure,” I, along with a number of other kids have a different sense of the city.

  5. When they ran the spliced up opening montage of films past and present, did anyone else catch a glimpse of that millisecond-long clip of Parminder Nagra in the Bend It Like Beckham?

  6. To the team Sepia Mutiny, I very much enjoy reading the postings from this site.

    I am a Ph.D student, the broad base for my thesis is “Films on the Indian Diaspora”. I started a blog to aid in my research.

    I am sure the information you produce here is going to be helpful and if once awhile you could give me your comments and opinions it would be helpful and I would be obliged.

    Did I mention I met Francis Assissi at the conference and he said sepia is his favourite site on the desi’s.

  7. couple of points: 1. there’s a smugness to this whole enterprise that is a bit sickening. 2. there’s a movie about shohini ghosh on the brothels of calcutta which chronicles the lives of how the sex workers themselves try and make more of their and their childrens’ lives. (wonder why a movie about brown people helping themselves will never win an oscar..hmm..wonder why..hmm).

    there is a LOT that is wrong with kolkata. A LOT. but there’s also a lot that is right- and that’s not just intellectual and cultural. it’s a relatively safe city (say, compared to delhi), its sex workers created a fantastic anti-HIV/AIDS programme, its still a relatively inexpensive place to live in…and most foreigners I know (who can look beyond the dirt and humidity..) will acknowledge it has a heart and a soul. but yeah, we’ll forever be the city of orphaned and exploited children being saved and educated by white do-gooders…no matter the incredible work that so so so many indian organizations put in? just not tear jerking enough eh?

  8. i think there is a point to be made that there is an eagerness to consider calcutta a “black hole”; just like Africa. the general image of Africa as a continent is a “dark” place, a place of poverty and suffering. while that is probably true, having met africans in the US I have gotten the impression there is much more to Africa than the general impression one gets from the US media in general. i think a similiar situation holds about Calcutta.

    i think one can not just simply assume racism has evaporated from this world

  9. SB, I have been to Africa. I was under the impression that Africa would be like India. Most of Sub Saharan Africa ( exception South Africa) is much poorer than India. I was actually surprised by the level of poverty in Africa.

  10. Before this descends completely into the heart of darkness, I would like to say three things:

    a) Indians don’t usually make tear-jerker documentaries about their problems because tear-jerking is for cinema, where people can cry about fantasy and not their own harsh reality.

    b) Zana Briski entered a space and used her camera to get kids to study their surroundings. Then, she called her friend to film the whole thing and as expected, what the kids saw was beautiful. Is that right, no, but as an exercise in the arts she did an interesting thing and therefore won an Oscar and who gives a s*it.

    c) In other words, it’s fairly lame that none of us with our collective intelligence, money and time aren’t using this space to discuss how we could help those kids, any kids, in India. Instead, we’re bitching about who has the cultural authority to do something that’s already done.

    As for Calcutta and its reputation, if you meet someone dumb enough to think that’s all there is to the city, then, well, don’t talk to them.

  11. Glory in the poverty of the brown people some more.

    Tupac Resurrected should have won, man.

  12. c) In other words, it’s fairly lame that none of us with our collective intelligence, money and time aren’t using this space to discuss how we could help those kids, any kids, in India. Instead, we’re bitching about who has the cultural authority to do something that’s already done. As for Calcutta and its reputation, if you meet someone dumb enough to think that’s all there is to the city, then, well, don’t talk to them.

    AMEN.

    my much-adored father (as kindly recognised by mv) used to say, instead of spreading leather all over the world, wear shoes on your feet. that proverb always springs to mind when i meet someone who is ignorant, who isn’t absorbing the contradictory information i happily provide them. i look at my shoes and i walk on.

  13. Antara, I didnt know about the film by Shohini Ghosh. That is exactly what I was talking about… That is my frustration about all these !!!!

  14. Al Mujahid, To answer your question, should everyone named (or ID on a website) named Al Mujahid be sent to Gauntanamo for a little taste of American “freedom” ???

  15. Having seen “Born Into Brothels” two weeks ago, I would have to say that the filmmakers made a good movie despite their intentions, not because of them. Had the movie been just about the film-makers and their interaction with the mind-numbing nature of the Calcutta bureaucracy (thanks CPI-Marxist), it would have been just another tale of white-folks dealing with surly brown folks.

    The kids really made that movie. They could have easily been “Woe is me” – but rather than feel sorry for themselves, they took what seemed like a hobby, picture-taking, and turned it into their own expressive medium. They still knew the odds are against them, but were not going to give up.

    We can rail against images of Indian poverty, but I have seen too many people defecate in public in Calcutta and New Delhi to believe that it is simply Western bias. If you want Westerners to stop making movies about Indian poverty – try eliminating the poverty.

    Too many Bengalis, when faced with a major problem, there is a tendency to say, “Keechu kora ucheet” – “Something should be done”. If you suggest that they themselves should do something, too often the answer is, “Ota anna loker kaj” – that is someone else’s work. Instead of working to solve problems, they engage in silly stunts, like changing the name from “Calcutta” to “Kolkata”

  16. Check out the following BBC story about how the film makers misrepresented the kids and made them look worse off then they were.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/entertainment/4291331.stm

    This is the worst of behaviors displayed by these greedy SOB filmmakers.

    Instead of throwing money at them, why dont the Indian Americans stand UP for the dignity of the kids for once. Lets be true mutineers against those who exploit kids for their fame (and in turn money)

  17. I hope you know that these kids are not old enough to see the big picture.

    Well, but if people want to believe the version of the story from the powerful, … well, its disappointing …

  18. Partha Banerjee, an Executive Director of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the author of this message thats been making the rounds. Here is an excerpt

    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. The children’s despair has exacerbated because they’d hoped that with active involvement in Ms. Briski’s camera project, there would be an opportunity for them to live a better life. 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. Alas, very likely, they don’t even know that their misery, helplessness and traumas are now being widely exposed and exploited to find fame and prosperity.
  19. Abhi: I don’t believe that Mr.Banerjee is the exec director of the AMPAS. He merely addressed his letter to the exec director of AMPAS.

  20. Ashvin, my mistake. You are correct. From the email that I received, Partha is apparently some guy who worked as a translator on the film (post production as stated in the letter).

  21. I have to agree with SD here; regardless of whether the filmmakers exploited, helped or otherwise affected these kids’ lives, the film is made.

    I’m all for accountability, and if Briski et al knowingly lead these families to believe that their lives were going to be better because of this and haven’t followed through, then they lead a thin, vapid existence and I hope their next film flops like a dying guppy.

    But, then again, I could also approach this from a less overtly cynical perspective: ostensibly a lot of people are going to see this film now that it’s won an Oscar, and many of them may be affected enough by it to help out in some way. Maybe a lot of us here.

    We haven’t really seen the real impact of this film on the families that served as its focus; if it does wind up helping some of them, is that so bad?

  22. the filmakers have won their oscars and they wore nice suits, and they looked fairly happy and they spent most of the time onstage on themselves.

    i think its not fair. didn’t look right to me

    africa may be poor but i wonder if there is something more to the country than grinding poverty

    also, the perception in the west is a powerful thing as an institution and i don’t know if it can be dismissed as simple ignorance that can be ignored.

    sometimes a misplaced perception combined with institutional resources can cause a whole lot of ill

  23. Antara writes:

    there’s a movie about shohini ghosh on the brothels of calcutta which chronicles the lives of how the sex workers themselves try and make more of their and their childrens’ lives. (wonder why a movie about brown people helping themselves will never win an oscar..hmm..wonder why..hmm).

    I really enjoyed Shohini Ghosh’s documentary on the DSMC (a collective of sex workers in Kolkata); it’s a film by an Indian director, and wouldn’t qualify for the Oscars’ documentary category. For all the problematic ickiness and cultural politics, Zana Briski still spent several years of her life living, documenting, and teaching in Kolkata’s red light district. In my book, that’s long enough to deserve the ‘right’ to make a film about the children she taught.

    RC, calling Brisky and Kauffman “greedy SOB filmmakers” is a bit over the top. Have you read any of the responses (1, 2) to Banerjee’s allegations?

  24. My thought is if those of us who live in India feel free to criticise incidents and people, and policies of the US, and we absolutely do, than we should be willing to hear criticism from the West. If you want to find an analogy, movies like Pardes, Kabhie, Khushi Kabhi Gham, etc. portray a hyper negative perspective of life in the US, UK etc. Why should the bollywood filmmakers be able to portray this perspective, but as soon as someone Non Indian shows India in a negative light, or portrays the poverty that is very much in your face, we get as Indians get defensive and question the motives of the filmmaker.

  25. AD, If you ask me, Swades is the worst kind of movie there is. (you dont want me to get started on it) also the movies that show life in US in bad light in particulars NRI in bad light are so dis-honest in the treatment that it boggles the mind. Even forums like these where we can bring out our oppositions to biases(as shown in those Bolly movies) would be a start.

  26. c) In other words, it’s fairly lame that none of us with our collective intelligence, money and time aren’t using this space to discuss how we could help those kids, any kids, in India. Instead, we’re bitching about who has the cultural authority to do something that’s already done.

    My mother runs a non-profit, Street Children International whose donor base is mostly professional Bengali NRI Hindu small donors. They fund pavement schools in Calcutta and additionally send money to the Ramkrishna mission in Barrackpore to sponsor a few kids up to the age of 18. They also support projects in other parts of West Bengal, India. You can e-mail me if it fits with your worldview and you want to volunteer your time/energy–really needed. I don’t help out because I have more critque than energy (and I’m a bad son:) ), but they do do needed work.

    If you don’t like this project, there are other projects that people are working on–e.g. Probini. Also, the Indicorps fellowship for grassroots work is coming up soon if you actually want to go to India.

    Unfortunately, while these small-scale projects are there, NRI uncles and aunties are spending far more (about 1 million dollars) on cultural affairs like the 25th anniversary of the Banga Sammelan. More ironic because New York is a city that runs on Bengali labor.

    So now can we get back to bitching? ;)

  27. Ashvin, my mistake. You are correct. From the email that I received, Partha is apparently some guy who worked as a translator on the film (post production as stated in the letter).

    Partha Bannerjee is a NY-based West Bengali community activist who currently directs the International Institute of NJ. He used to work at NICE (New Immigrant Community Empowerment).

  28. The first thing I would like some people here to ask themselves is whether their reaction would be different had Briski been an Indian? I ask this question because one westerner is held responsible for Calcutta’s image as a city of lepers and now another westerner is being held responsible for the image as a city of brothels (I am not quoting anyone here… just a feeling I get reading the replies). What should matter is the intentions of the filmmaker and not his/her nationality.

    Are we so frail that we cannot bear to see our own image in the mirror? If we don’t like the image, should it really be the mirror that needs to be broken?

    Lets assume for the time being — and I don’t believe this is the case — that Briski is a selfish filmmaker who intends to exploit the children for her own selfish means. Given this assumption, still, isn’t the portrayal of the children’s life honest? Isn’t it true that these children have been robbed of their own childhood due to the circumstances which aren’t really their fault? Isn’t it true that the fleeting moment of artistic freedom — even if it was to further the director’s selfish aims — brought genuine smiles to the children’s faces?

    Why is it the director’s fault if people watch this movie and believe that all of calcutta is a big brothel? That would be a bigger reason why we need to highlight what is good in the city; why we need to do more to attract investments; why we need to convince the investors that we are aware of the problems and are moving to address them; that we need to say that yes we have problems, but we need to move ahead not cringe at how difficult the problem is.

    There might be many valid criticisms of Briski, but so far I haven’t heard of any that convinces me.

  29. I saw this film at the AFI-sponsored SilverDocs Festival where it won the Audience Award. I was very moved by it and by getting the opportunity to speak with Ross Kauffman for the better part of an hour after the showing.

    Mr. Kauffman’s sincerity seemed genuine to me. They seem to be very concerned about protecting the children and said they never plan to show the film in India, just to be sure of that safety. All the proceeds of the Kids-With-Cameras organization’s sales of the prints and book copies are to go to forming a school directly for the children of the sex workers in Calcutta.

    I don’t know about the typical American’s response to the film as I am fairly aware of current Indian cinema, both Bollywood and Regional, but as a non-desi viewer, I feel that in no way was Briski and Kauffman’s project setting out to single out Calcutta as the only place in the world that has poverty, crime and mistreatment of children. We are smart enough to know that these miseries are worldwide. She just set the focus on the place where she worked and illustrated the conditions she found. We do well to look at it and then respond to that cause, and others, as we are able. I applaud them for their attempt.

  30. “All the proceeds of the Kids-With-Cameras organization’s sales of the prints and book copies are to go to forming a school directly for the children of the sex workers in Calcutta.”

    Wrong! Some of it goes to their new $3600 office space located in trendy Nolita, Manhattan! Guess who the landlord is??? His initials are RK. HAHAHA!