NEW YORK — If ever a filmmaker deserved to be in her own movie, it would be Zana Briski.
During the seven years it took to make her documentary, "Born Into Brothels," she spent more than three of them living in a Calcutta brothel, taught the children of prostitutes the rudiments of photography, and even helped place some of these children in schools. She crossed the line between reporter and participant, albeit reluctantly. She didn't even particularly like the place.
"Every day is like going to war, just dealing with the traffic and the pollution and the poverty and the animals, and the people wanting money from you," Briski said of India, where during the course of her stay she contracted hepatitis A and B, malaria, bacterial dysentery, giardiasis and bronchitis. "It's a very hard place to be."
But her film, co-directed with Ross Kauffman and slated to open Jan. 28, is not about her. It's about the kids -- Kochi, Shanti, Avijit, Suchita, Manik, Gour, Puja, Tapasi -- whom the camera follows around the twisting, narrow streets of Sonagachi, Calcutta's notorious red-light district. The filmmakers document the squalid homes, tragic family histories (some of them even have grandmothers in the trade), eerily conventional domestic chores, occasional high spirits and, more than anything, the crushing sense that life won't get any better.
It does, though, at least for some of them, and all because of Briski and this movie.
Originally the British-born, New York-based photographer, who majored in religious studies at Cambridge University, had no intention of going to India. But in 1995 she was invited by some Tibetan monks to live in their monastery. Then, indulging her interest in women's issues, she went out on her own to document the cultural aversion to girls. She "hung out in hospitals and clinics, watching women give birth and then what happens if they have a girl" (meaning, sometimes, infanticide).
She went back to New York but returned to India two years later, and it was on that trip that she went to Calcutta and found another women's issue just waiting to be documented in the red-light district.
Not surprisingly, access wasn't easy.
"I went through journalists, I went through NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], I went through local women," Briski said. "And finally I met a brothel owner that was pretty sympathetic because he wanted to be seen to be doing social work. He ran for local elections."
While photographing the women for an essay on life in a brothel, Briski found herself being tailed by their kids, who would pick up her camera and pretend to shoot. She realized that giving them cameras would get her more involved in the community and also provide a window into it. So she gave each kid a point-and-shoot camera. Her students (21 in all, though only eight appear in the finished film) were drawn from several brothels in the area, including the one in which she stayed.
"From the very first class I taught them how to put the batteries in and how to do flash and very basic stuff," she said. "And then I said, 'Let's go out and shoot.' They ran down the stairs, disappeared immediately, and I was like, now what do I do? There was a moment when I thought, 'It's all over.'
"But it worked. They came back an hour later with their film shot, totally excited."
She gave each of the kids one roll of film a week and a homework assignment, which they seldom remembered to do, though they did shoot the rolls. Some of what they returned with -- photos of one another, animals, street people -- showed great promise. Finally she decided to put what they were doing on film -- perhaps a 10-minute short -- and tried to interest her then boyfriend, Kauffman, a documentary film editor.
Bit by bit, a film comes together
He passed on the idea but bought her a video camera. When she sent him the footage, he changed his mind: "I saw the first tape, and I was pretty blown away. I was on a plane for Calcutta three weeks later."
By this time Briski was living in a hotel because she needed a safe place to keep her equipment and negatives. On a typical day she and Kauffman would go to the red-light district, hang out with the kids (sometimes filming them, sometimes not) and shoot Briski's night classes. She also organized outings to the zoo, a water park, the beach. The two then returned to New York, where in 2001 Briski organized an auction of the kids' photographs at Sotheby's.
It was then that the film -- and Briski's part in it -- began to take shape.
"While she was organizing it, she would tell everybody the story of the kids," Kauffman said. "I'm hearing this stuff and I'm hearing this narration in the film while she's saying it. So I said I have to start recording her conversations. It drove her absolutely nutty because she didn't want to be on camera. That's not what we were doing, but I knew that we needed to tell the story somehow."