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Originally published Friday, February 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Photographer helps kids escape life of neglect, despair

In more ways than one, "Born Into Brothels," which received an Oscar nomination for best documentary last week, is reminiscent of an earlier...

Special to The Seattle Times

In more ways than one, "Born Into Brothels," which received an Oscar nomination for best documentary last week, is reminiscent of an earlier Academy Award nominee, the 1995 nonfiction work "Small Wonders."

The latter is about a dedicated East Harlem music teacher, Roberta Guaspari, who personally supplied violins to her underprivileged music students. (The kids rewarded her by playing well at Carnegie Hall.) It was a focused, exhilarating story about the power of one person's dedication to all-but-disregarded children — the memory of which was almost ruined by Wes Craven's rambling feature makeover, "Music of the Heart," starring Meryl Streep.

Hopefully, "Born Into Brothels," which chronicles a period of hope in the lives of neglected youngsters after a photojournalist gives them cameras, won't be similarly reconstituted into a feel-good project for Gwyneth Paltrow. This low-tech, buoyant, yet often heartbreaking film is miracle enough on its own terms, full of surprises and tragic reminders that many kids are robbed of their dreams and promise by exploitative forces.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 3.5 stars

"Born Into Brothels," with Zana Briski. Directed by Briski and Ross Kauffman. 85 minutes. Rated R for language. In English and Bengali with English subtitles. Varsity.

Co-directed by Ross Kauffman, a longtime documentary editor, and Zana Briski, a London-born, New York-based photographer, "Born Into Brothels" concerns what happens after Briski — on assignment capturing images of the sex trade in Sonagachi, India — becomes deeply interested in the children of local prostitutes.

Noting that many prepubescent boys and girls living in Sonagachi's brothels (despite constant violence, drugs and trafficking of their mothers) maintain a natural curiosity and cautious optimism, Briski offers a free photography class to 20 kids.

Briski provides point-and-shoot cameras, teaches basic composition and arranges photo-op field trips to a zoo and a beach. But she also encourages her students to take pictures of their own lives, homes, friends, families and neighborhoods. The results we see are dynamic and sometimes remarkable: startling images of hashish-addicted wastrels, spirited young women with enigmatic smiles, self-portraits set against urban decay.

Not surprisingly, Briski's involvement with her little apprentices becomes increasingly personal. Knowing full well the girls will eventually be forced into prostitution and the boys will likely become the next generation of drunkards and bullies in the community, she begins pressing for their enrollment in boarding schools. Briski raises money by setting up gallery shows of the kids' work, drawing media attention to their story and arranging for her most talented student, a haunted boy named Avijit, to travel to Amsterdam for a youth photo conference.

But her dedication meets resistance on many fronts: government red tape, schools that won't teach the children of prostitutes, Avijit's own despair. Some mothers and guardians are prepared to let their kids go; others won't. In the end, we learn the results of Briski's mixed success, and one wonders if those children who didn't make it still cherish or have forgotten the moment when their voices were heard and self-expression was valued.

Briski and Kauffman capture all of this on ordinary video. The simplicity and immediacy of the production makes it easy to forget the exotica of the locale and feel some stake in the outcome of Briski's uphill battle. "Born Into Brothels" reminds us that not every cause is measured by triumph, but by imperative.

Tom Keogh:

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