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.