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DVD Pick: "Born Into Brothels"

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"Born Into Brothels" (2004) won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and many other prizes. When I watched it on DVD, I found it very moving. Also, the extras on the DVD enriched my experience of watching the documentary.

"Born Into Brothels" is about a woman helping eight children who live in Calcutta's red light district. That woman is London-born, Cambridge-educated, New York-based photographer Zana Briski. Since she speaks English and the children speak Bengali, they communicate through translators. The documentary supplies English subtitles when Bengali is spoken.

Watching and listening to Briski on the DVD made it clear to me that "Born Into Brothels" was a labor of love for her. She was apparently involved in some sort of project to chronicle the lives of Calcutta sex workers in still photos when she started getting to know the sex workers' kids. She noticed how photography fascinated the children, and she gave them cameras. She conducted workshops on photography for the kids and arranged for them to visit places like the zoo and the beach that gave them the opportunity to take pictures. One boy did so well he got a trip to Amsterdam out of it.

The living conditions in the red light district are squalid, and the children who reside there are stigmatized. One boy's mother was burned to death in what was almost certainly an act of murder by her pimp, but the uncaring authorities didn't even bother to investigate. The documentary shows Briski trying to get the kids into boarding schools, but the obstacles she faces are daunting. Still, I found the tenacity and resourcefulness of both Briski and the children to be inspiring.

Working with Briski on making "Born Into Brothels" was an American named Ross Kauffman. Unlike Briski, he doesn't appear on camera in the documentary. However, on the DVD you can see both Kauffman and Briski interviewed by Charlie Rose. You can also see both filmmakers accepting the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature at the 2005 Academy Awards ceremony.

The DVD provides a feature-length commentary by the two documentarians in which Kauffman and Briski participate roughly equally. They have good rapport as commentators, and I found listening to them to be almost as worthwhile as the documentary itself.

To my mind, the most entertaining DVD bonus material is the nine-minute featurette "Reconnecting." In it Briski and Kauffman have a reunion with the children three years after finishing shooting the documentary. Another mildly interesting extra is the so-called kids' commentary, where the filmmakers ran the documentary on a laptop computer and recorded the children's reactions to selected scenes.

The DVD also contains about 13 minutes of deleted scenes. The most interesting thing about this to me is that there was a ninth child in the group, but very little is seen of her in the documentary. In the commentary, Briski says the girl simply disappeared one day while the documentary was being made. But notice that by the time the featurette "Reconnecting" was shot, the girl has reappeared and seems to be doing okay.

Below I've listed all the details for the "Born Into Brothels" DVD.

DVD Details:

Release Date: September 20, 2005
Full-Screen (1.33:1), Color
Feature Film Run Time: 1 Hour 23 Minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Some Sequences of Strong Language
English and Bengali (Subtitled) Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround
English and Bengali (Subtitled) Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo
Commentary With Documentarians
Theatrical Trailer
"Reconnecting" — An Update on the Kids 3 Years Later (9 min.)
Commentary by Kids Watching Selected Scenes (36 min.)
Deleted Scenes (13 min.)
Production Stills (19)
About Kids With Cameras (text)
Academy Award Acceptance Speech (2 min. 50 sec.)
Interview Segment With Charlie Rose (6 min.)
12-Page Booklet

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