Born into Brothels -- For Better and Worse.

At long last, the film StinkyLulu has been waiting to see wafted into Albuquerque -- Academy Award winner for "Best Documentary" Born Into Brothels. So, MrStinky & StinkyLu snagged a screening (before MrStinky blew this popstand for a week of yoga by the beach in Mexico) and, ever since, StinkyLulu's been wondering if it's somehow wrong that StinkyLulu didn't love the film...

StinkyLulu's reaction to the film? Decidedly ambivalent.
And the question that's been dogging StinkyLu for the 24 hours since seeing the film? Would StinkyLulu have liked the film just fine if StinkyLulu weren't a goldarn academic?

See, StinkyLulu's been wondering -- does it matter that filmmakers Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski don't offer a self-reflexive/interrogative moment contemplating the "power" of the camera in their white Western hands as they maneuver the back alley brothels of Calcutta? Does the placement of cameras in the hands of the children "born into brothels" obviate the complicated history of the ethnographic film tradition?

On the one hand, StinkyLulu shared many of the reactions that champions of the film have articulated. As a subject, Born Into Brothels offers an indelible glance into the lives of this handful of kids, doing so through a remarkably respectful attention to each kid as author and as subject of the photographic gesture. As a film, the filmmakers' technological creativity illuminates the scenario cinematically -- so that it's a visually thrilling experience in addition to being a videographic slice of life. As a project, Zana Briski's determination to help these kids secure resources and opportunities presents important lessons in and of itself. As an filmgoing experience, it's undeniably affecting -- Criticlasm told StinkyLulu that this film moved him more intensely and in more ways than he recalls any film doing in years, possibly ever. In these ways, the film does what StinkyLulu loves documentary film for: it tells a really powerful "real-life" story that StinkyLulu at least would likely never have heard/seen/felt were it not for the efforts of these filmmakers.

So, all these things being true, does it matter that the filmmakers did not address the elephant just on the edge of every documentary's frame? (And StinkyLu's not talking about those poor elephants in that tragic zoo visited by the kids in the film.) No, StinkyLulu's basically crabbed out that the film didn't address the tension dogging every "ethnographic" film since Nanook. (StinkyLulu's own experience of this interpretative tension began in the critiques that got articulated hither and yon around Jennie Livingston's Paris Is Burning.) What does it mean when a white woman brings a camera into deep/dark/disempowered impoverishment? Can the camera become a vehicle for transformation or empowerment? Or is the camera itself a tool of power, of oppression, of fetishization? Are the kids empowered by the cameras trained upon their photographic training? Or do their images become totemic souvenirs of a Western exercise in colonial sentimentality?

StinkyLulu fears that the "child-saving" emotional hook -- Zana Briski's actual experience in the red-light district cinematically transformed into the narrative structure of the film -- debilitates all the film's most illuminating aspects. Indeed, StinkyLulu fears that this uninterrogated sincerity on the part of the filmmakers will ultimately situate this film squarely in the fairly square tradition of Nanook, FSA photos, and Paris Is Burning...

Which returns StinkyLulu to the original question? Would any of this actually matter to StinkyLulu if StinkyLulu were not an academic who's spent many a classroom hour examining such questions? Probably not. But that's who StinkyLulu is -- and these are the questions StinkyLulu asks -- for better and worse.


criticlasm said...

I love that you ask these questions, but I do have to put in my two cents here. I do sometimes think these are possibly ways that we distance ourselves from the film. I can see how some of the others you mentioned are exploitative, as in the filmmaker saying "I am now showing you the real underbelly of society", but for me this film didn't do that. I felt like for a lot of the film we were actually seeing things through the childrens' eyes. Including their own powerful work in some ways negated the position of the filmmaker--or perhaps negate is a strong word. Balanced perhaps. By showing us not only interviews with the kids, but their own work, the children themselves are given a power over what we see and experience that is as valid and as powerful (if not more so) than Zana Briski's. This film, for me, is unique in that. So those questions didn't come up as much as they do for me in most other documentaries.
And a bigger question--what would the film have looked like for you if the filmmaker acknowledged that? Would she need to say a line that expressed her awareness, and then she is excused? Or, is there no way that anyone can make a film about a different culture that is authentic? Is she doomed to failure and this kind of criticism from the start? The subjectivity of the filmmaker is so present in any documentary, as it's rare that a documentary filmmaker only deals with what they know, or they would only have one film in them, on some level. So I suppose my question is where does the filmmaker's construct lead us in documentary, and how do we ever escape it? Or is just acknowledgement of the subjectivity/objectification you are seeking? Inquiring minds want to know....

StinkyLulu said...

Some quick thoughts that your comment raised for StinkyLulu:

A: StinkyLulu would argue that just as there are 2 main "stories" in this film just as there are 2 filmmakers (Ross Kauffman & Zana Briski). The more prominent story is that of the title & of the project initiated by Briski's photo classes -- how can these kids, so denied humanity & agency, discover a way out of their situation through their own interpretive & creative work? These questions are on the table from the first images hitting the screen & from any attempt to summarize the film. The less self-aware story is the story that the film -- Ross Kauffman perhaps? -- tells of Zana Briski's own experiences during this experience.

The troubling piece of this for StinkyLulu derives from the possibly circumstantial use of Briski's experience as the implicit emotional structure of the film. This reliance on Briski's experience for the narrative structure makes this -- whether the filmmaker intended it or not -- an encounter ethnography. That the audience doesn't see/hear Kauffman (just as Briski's translators remain anonymous/unintroduced) add to the list of choices made by the filmmaker/s that trouble StinkyLulu.

B: StinkyLulu takes great issue with the jab that these questions "are possibly ways that we distance ourselves from the film." StinkyLu counters: By not asking these questions, "we" risk commodifying the experience as an authentic encounter, a most colonizing & dehumanizing choice.

C: What StinkyLulu so adores about interesting documentary is that it -- as a cinematic practice -- is possibly the most self-aware, the most self-interrogating, the most self-consciously performative. Documentary as a form of cinematic construction is unavoidably tied to the ideas, strategies, choices, experiences & opportunities of a particular constellation of collaborating filmmakers. Because the documentary filmmaker knows there is no way for the framed moving image to capture the actual dimensions of the situation being filmed, the documentary filmmaker is always making choices of how to convey the situation. (Elsewise it lapses into banal reportage or raw propaganda.)

Hafta run. Obviously thoughts remain.

criticlasm said...

I have to say your comments are illuminating, as always--that's why you're a teacher and I'm not.

My use of the "we" was perhaps incorrect--I should have said I. I know sometimes I will walk into a film and for some reason click into a mode which disallows my emotional engagement with it. My issue-not yours. But in a larger level I do wonder about criticism and emotional distance--but that's another story. You always impress me as being able to be simultaneously emotionally engaged and critical, which I admire. I can do it sometimes, but not all the time. IT wasn't meant as a jab, but a larger question.

But--what you bring up about unseen people on the edges is fascinating, especially in documentary. Film controls our focus in a such a way that we are encouraged to forget there are people manipulating every moment, as they are in the theater. Perhaps even more than in the theatre, as there you decide what you see. I suppose documentary pushes that envelope, as the levels of who is involved is deeper. We see the Zana Briski level, which is one removed, but not the Kauffman (?) level. And beyond to editors, post production people, lighting--are all of these involved? How much does all of it become performative for the people in front of the camera, so how authentic is any of it?
I also think the trend to documeentary in our culture at large, and in some ways away from fiction, is very interesting.

But thanks for responding--you always make me think further.