Monday Night 05.30.05 — Screening/Discussion on Born Into Brothels

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Monday Night 05.30.05 — Screening/Discussion on Born Into Brothels
0. About this Monday Night
1. About the discussion and the film Born Into Brothels
2. Watching the film
3. Relevant texts/essays for discussion
4. Letter from Professor Ann Holder
5. Short Description of ‘The Telegraph’
0. About this Monday Night
What: Screening / Talk / Discussion
Where: 16 Beaver Street, 4th floor (directions below)
When: Monday Night 05.30.05 @ 7:30 Pm
Who: Open To All
1. About the Film ‘Born Into Brothels’ and the Discussion
The idea that we all meet up for a discussion around Born Into Brothels,
that won an Oscar for Best Documentary this year, originated after hearing
its filmakers speak at Pratt Institute last month. There is a LOT of
criticism over this documentary, both online as well as in India. We thought
it would be good to be able to discuss this in thinking about it in ethical,
political and pedagocial terms – especially for artists and imagemakers, and
people who teach in the arts and humanities.
We will also be screening a short video by Jesal Kapadia, which was made in response to the film. A short description of the video can be found below (#5).
2. Watching the Film
You are all encouraged to see the film before hand. The documentary
will be described starting at 7pm sharp. We would like to keep most of the time for the discussion. The movie is still playing at Cinema Village East, and you can also get it on NetFlix, or download it off Limewire.
3. Relevant texts/essays for discussion
Three links to visit + one letter
a) Born Into Saving Brothel Children – by Svati Shah
Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels ignores local organizing
efforts and instead gives us more images of white saviors.
First National Conference of Sex Workers in India
14-16 November 1997, Calcutta
c) Against Mother Theresa by McKenzie Wark
d) Below is the letter that the sex-woker’s organisation – DMSC wrote to the
newpapers in calcutta, addressing some key issues surrounding the
Calcutta sex workers respond to Born Into Brothels
The following letter was published in The Telegraph, March 15, 2005
Sir – There has been a lot of hype over Born into Brothels recently,
with its maker, Zana Briski, winning an Oscar. In her interview with
The Telegraph, „I didn‚t even realise I was making a film‰ (March
7), she has said that we did not cooperate with her over the film.
It is true that she approached us and we too asked her many times to
share the film with our ethics committee, but she didn‚t pay any
attention. Having seen the film recently, we now realize what the
problem was. The film is a one-sided portrayal of the life of sex
workers in Sonagachi. It shows sex workers as unconcerned about the
future of their children. This is not true. Being a sex worker and a
mother, I can say that we are more protective as mothers than can be
imagined. The documentary does not shed light on the valiant efforts
of the sex workers to unite in order to change their own lives as
well as that of their progeny. In this sense, Born into Brothels is
In this age, when it is the norm to respect ethical considerations
while making documentaries, the film used hidden cameras to shoot
intimate moments in the lives of sex-workers and their work zones
We fear the global recognition of such a film, giving a one-sided
view of the lives of sex workers in a third world country, may do a
lot of harm to the global movement of sex workers for their rights
and dignity. It can even have an impact on their hard-won victories
for rights, un-stigmatized healthcare and access to resources.
Yours faithfully,
Swapna Gayen, secretary, Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee, Calcutta
4. Letter from Professor Ann Holder
Hi All,
I’m writing to thank you for the ideas or resources you provided for me, and
my colleagues, as part of our attempt to raise critical questions about the
film “Born into Brothels” when it was screened here at Pratt Institute.
I also wanted to report briefly on the questions we tried to raise and the
(non) responses we received. This of course represents my own viewpoint and
no one else’s.
The materials and articles that we received from all of you were extremely
helpful in shaping a broader context in which to talk about the film and to
problematize it on the ground of its claims to documentary. We generally
tried to place the film back into the many contexts it obscures, denies or
effaces: the history of colonialism and the complexities of
post-colonialism, no to mention contemporary global relations of power, the
rich history of Indian feminism and its own very elaborated debates about
issues of sexuality, sex work, etc., the work by many NGOs and
community-based organizations on the ground in India in general and
Sonagachi in particular, including the DMSC, the orientalism  of a narrative
that purports to ‘save the children’ from their own mothers, and finally the
position of the ‘westerner’ as producer , narrator, viewer, etc. in ways
that hopefully might push the audience to consider the ways they/we might
learn from critical questions about this film.
My memory of the event is a bit impaired by my anger at sitting on stage
with the two filmmakers who basically refused to respond to any of our
questions, by parrying with disclaimers such as:
“we didn’t know we were making a film”
“so many questions… I can’t focus”
“I love prostitutes, I was an Indian prostitute in a former life” (I‘m not
“there is a contract out on my life in Calcutta… from people who don’t want
things to change… that’s why I can’t go back”
“don’t believe everything you read”
So I’m indebted to a colleague who wrote me an email in the aftermath
explaining her responses to the rationales of Zana Briski (and Ross
Kauffman) who was:
“essentially making the arguments that any critique of the film is
hurting these children, that bringing up questions of western identity
or broader colonial history is denying our shared humanity, pretending
she’s benefited in no way from the film – and in fact shares in the
kids’ universal suffering, painting all locally based organizations as
the mafia, etc etc…  And to cap it all off, the arrogance of her
total certitude that she did absolutely everything right, regardless of
what anyone else in India or elsewhere might think, and would change
nothing in the film…  It was truly one of the most disappointing and
horrifying displays of neo-colonial attitudes I’ve seen.”
Several pertinent questions were raised from the audience, such as asking
them to describe the kinds of conversations between the filmmakers and the
kids and families about the implications of making the film (to which the
answer was a too quick and too defensive response from Kauffman that of
course there were releases, that no one makes a film without getting
releases, even though the word “release” had not even been mentioned in the
Another was that given the controversies of the film whether either Briski
or Kauffman would have done anything differently. To this, Briski said a
definitive “no,” and Kauffman said he would have included a “more nurturing”
scene between a grandmother and child. (I guess this is in response to our
query about why the claimed affectionate relationships between the
filmmakers and the women rec’d such limited and partial attention.)
A third made the comparison between Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay,” and the
failure of the Foundation started by proceeds from that film, and the plans
for the sustainability of their on-going efforts to “help” the children of
Sonagachi. To this Briski responded that they are planning to “build a
school” for the children—I assume from the film that she means a “good
school”—but refused to name any partners on the ground in Kolkata, or
discuss any governmental liaison work. It was also unclear since she had
told us it was too “dangerous” for her to return (because of the contract on
her life), how this school would be built or administered. She did mention
that one of the children in the film had volunteered to run the school—an
interesting claim since that child is still in school herself.
Among their various statements the following seem worthwhile to report:
–Briski continued her trashing of DMSC, saying that none of their claims
were verifiable, that they did no actual work, asserting that HIV rates had
not fallen, that condoms were not being used and that HIV rates were
actually 70-80%, not the 2% DMSC claimed (although I couldn’t find any basis
for her attribution of 2% anywhere in public DMSC material).
–Both Briski and Kauffman provided pseudo-anthropological narratives about
the “different” relationships between parents and children “there.” This
included the bald statement that parents just don’t display affection
–They discussed plans for franchising the ‘Kids with Cameras’ foundation,
and did fundraising and list collection at the Pratt event for such a
possibility. They mentioned Haiti, Jerusalem and Cairo as potential sites
(still no US plans). Yet concretely they seem to be plowing all, or a great
deal, of the proceeds into the eight children from the original film,
several of whom now seem to be equipped with cell phones so they can
constantly text message their “Auntie” and “Uncle” in the States.
–Briski in particular claimed to have gained nothing for herself from the
project, and stated her wish to return to her photography full-time: a
statement my students found particularly odd given her promises to make good
on the program of change supposedly underway in Sonagachi, not to mention
the franchise plan.
–She did state there was a contract out on her life as a result of people
who don’t like the film in India. And her unwillingness to name one person
or group she and Kauffman would continue to work with was quite astounding
given the scope of their plans.
–She also said that her only litmus test for the success of the film was
whether or not the children involved liked it and thought it spoke for them.
She had almost no capacity to address the broader social dilemmas, except to
tell my co-panelist that she wouldn’t want her children growing up there.
As to the audience response, it was mixed. This was perhaps the most
disturbing dimension of the evening for us. The audience was large, mostly
made up of Pratt students. They certainly resonated to the claims of
universal humanism, applauding the filmmakers several times as they claimed
“no difference” among “people” and said they had just responded to “human
beings.” In this framework, we were reduced to picky, politically correct
intellectuals who hated children. Several of my students later said they
found Briski “inspirational,” and this was obviously disturbing. However,
there was another group of students who were more unsettled by the
discussion, if not by the film, and who expressed concerns about Briski and
Kauffman’s cavalier attitudes towards both filmmaking and the larger
We felt that the event poses a challenge, represented also by the widespread
acclaim the film has received from audiences and from the critical
establishment in the US, of how to shake US-based audiences out of their
complacency and to look at this film, and films like this in a more critical
way. Even supposedly politically savvy adults, who should have known better,
have started off in my discussions with them talking about the film as a
“feel good” movie. We find this quite disturbing and see the film as one
occasion for pushing these issues at every possible opportunity. (I should
add that what I was shocked by was not that there is come complacency and
ethnocentrism out there, but by how extreme the film seemed to me and how
universally uncontroversial it has been.)
In sum, even if we were just a speed-bump in Briski and Kauffman’s 15
minutes of celebrity, it provoked discussion and debate, some of which may
extend outward in ways we can’t know or anticipate. One of the more
promising offshoots was our connection with another NY film/photo maker who
has made a short video in response to the film and is screening it locally
in NY. There is a plan for a follow-up discussion with her and a group of
other artists, theorists, activists in Manhattan. So… the effort to make our
discussions and disagreements public continues.
Thanks again for your help and I welcome any comments, questions, additions.
Ann Holder
Department of Social Science and Cultural Studies
Pratt Institute
5. Short Description of ‘The Telegraph’
we will also screen ‘The Telegraph’ made by Jesal Kapadia. This video is a
response and a form of protest to the movie “Born Into Brothels‚” that
recently won an Oscar. ‘The Telegraph‚’ is a digital video translating the
letter that was written on March 15 2005 by the sex-workers‚ organization,
to the editor of the local newspaper called The Telegraph in Calcutta. I
found this letter circulating in the „online diasporic public sphere‰,
archived on various list-serves and blogs. This video addresses the inherent
difficulty of communication itself. Like in any letter, there is a direct
address; the words play the role of the image. Using the color red for
alert, and the structure of digital text messaging or news display on
buildings in public sites, I un-archive the letter backwards onto the
screen. In re-writing this letter, my goal is to generate a new response to
it‚s interpellative call.
‘Teleo‚’ means far off, and ‘graph‚’ means writing, or an inscription ˆ
therefore telegraph means writing across distance, from one place to
another. One writes letters only in the absence of the addressee, the
receiver, or in this case, the audience. As Jacque Derrida writes in his
essay “Signature Event Context‚” that there is no guarantee that the message
will reach its assumed destination, in its original form, as intended. In
re-inscribing this letter on the visual screen, I am thinking of ‘the logic’
that ties repetition to alteriety (or to otherness)‚, in that, every time
you repeat something, speech, messages etc, it gets altered and the message
carries a new meaning in its re-iteration. My re-contextualizing the
structure of Swapna Gayen’s letter, formally and visually, my hope is to
demand a different readership, or possibly a different mode of attention,
from the viewers.