Sunday, June 7, 2009

Born Into Brothels: Dirty Linen Filmmakers and Oscar Organizers Hide

Born Into Brothels Kids "Sue" Filmmakers!
(Kolkata newspapers, August 2008)

Dear Friends:

I got news from Kolkata (Calcutta) media that some of the featured kids on Born Into Brothels have decided to take the filmmakers to court (see details below), on breach of promise charges. I found the news intriguing, but not shocking.

Some of you may remember the lies and scandals surrounding the Oscar-winning documentary Born Into Brothels (Hollywood AMPAS, 2005). Briefly, I was involved with the film as its post-production translator; co-director Ross Kauffman assured me that it was only a philanthropic mission, and that they'd never go for big festivals and prizes. Later, I was infuriated when I saw the final 80-minute product: I found it to be an extremely biased work full of self-aggrandizement, extreme distortion of facts as well as massive unethical activities.

If you like, read the following letter I wrote to Hollywood before the film got the Oscars. My letter along with a relevant Outlook India story can be found at: .

(You can also Google it under Partha Banerjee and Born Into Brothels.)

I'm now putting together some new developments surrounding the movie. You read and decide.

Thank you for your comments and actions.

P.S. -- In fact, the featured childrens' suing the now-celebrity filmmakers is a less significant point; I believe that we should be more concerned about the following: (1) the unethical filming of sex workers and their children without permission; (2) rampant, plagiarized use of Satyajit Ray's music used on the soundtrack; (3) total breach of promised safeguarding of the identity of the children and their sex worker parents; (4) biased, distorted portrayal of Calcutta and suppression of info on sex workers' powerful solidarity movement; and (5) making enormous money and fame exploiting the poor and vulnerable.



The Sex Workers' Union Protests

A secretary of the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya [Coordination] Committee, the sex workers' organization active in Sonagachi, has criticized co-director Zana Briski for using hidden camera work to present the children's parents as uncaring, for ignoring the prostitutes' substantial efforts to unite, and for harming the global movement for sex worker rights and dignity. In addition, the film has been criticized in India for its racist stereotyping and exploitation of the children for the purposes of Indophobic propaganda in the west.[6]

The critics join the Sonagachi prostitute-advocacy groups in condemning the exploitation of the plight of the prostitutes for profit.[6]

[6]. A missionary enterprise, by Praveen Swami in Washington D C, Frontline.

Contacts for Durbar Mahila Coordination Committee:
12/5 Nilmoni Mitra Street, Kolkata 700006, India
Phone No: +91-33 2530 3148
Email ID:


Zana [Briski] denies links with Kids with Cameras

By Sebabrata Banerjee, August 8, 2008



"Two days after being accused of unethical fundraising and breaching promise, New York based photographer and Oscar winning documentary director of `Born into Brothels', Zana Briski, made an effort to stay clear of it. The allegations made by four teens of Sonagachi, the North Kolkata red light zone, involved Zana and the no-profit organisation Kids with Cameras she founded in 2002. In an e-mail sent to ilovekolkata on Friday, August 08, Zana stated, `I am no longer involved with Kids with Cameras as I am deeply involved with another project which keeps me busy and largely out of touch.'

Four of the eight kids featured in Zana’s documentary— Puja, Tapasi, Kochi and Gour—have recently come out with their allegations in a Bengali newspaper. The root of it all is ensconced in the website, where the young photographers’ works are still on sale. Zana founded this non-profit organization, Kids with Cameras, in 2002—shortly after her stint in Sonagachi and before the documentary had released. Apparently, Zana’s second objective for visiting the Kolkata brothels was kept a secret. Says Indrani Sinha, the head of a city based NGO, Sanglap, which played a liaison between Zana and the kids initially, “I came to know of it when Zana wrote to me for having the consent letters signed by three members of my organisation, who were featured in the film. Zana’s friend Ross never told anyone why he was shooting video clips.”

Though the images shot by the children are still on sale, the four have alleged that the money stopped trickling down to them long back. This caused Kochi to leave Sabera Home, a rehabilitation centre where she was given accommodation. The girl had to be put up elsewhere— in all likelihood, at a relative’s place. However, the information provided on the website is away from reality. It informs, ‘Kochi, 16, stayed at the Sabera Home for Girls for five years. She has chosen to continue her studies in India and she will enroll in school this spring.’ ‘Tapasi, 18, left Sabera on her own accord two years ago and has since married.’ And, ‘Suchitra, 21, has married and moved out of Kolkata.’

Interestingly, the co-director, Ross Kauffman, has informed that Zana snapped her links with him sometime back. The gist of all that Ross’ e-mail has to say: Total eight kids worked for the film. Of them, four are still receiving aids from the proceeds. Those who have complained, are not getting any help as they’ve refused to continue with their studies.

“Let alone refusing to study, the five (includes Suchitra) could never get through the telephone number that Zana gave them”, says Indrani Sinha. “Does Zana know of the awful consequences that awaited the kids once her film won the Oscar? The school where two kids were studying refused to accommodate them after their photos were published in local newspapers, lest the boy’s presence blot their reputation.”

Gour, one of the two boys featured in the documentary, has become a labourer. The paltry wage he makes from a small factory falls short of the needs for even a hand to mouth existence. He said that they didn’t know a documentary was being made. And the telephone number that Zana- aunty gave him was constantly giving out no reply when he tried to contact her."

Indrani Sinha brings in an all too familiar angle to the episode, "Zana refused to talk when I called her up. Instead, one of her confidants e-mailed me in abusive language. Were it not for them, I would never have known how foreigners make money simply by exploiting the poor of this country.""



Poster Girl is Now a Sex Worker!

"When the film was nominated, the directors flew the kids to Los Angeles. Life was happy for some time and the directors tried their best to rehabilitate the kids. Preeti, who was in high school, and the rest got an offer to stay back in the US and study. Some did [only two did]. She backed out. [the other kids -- Gaur, Manik, Shanti, Suchitra, Tapasi, et al. -- are lost and forgotten.]

“Aunty (Zana) gave a lot of money [nobody knows how much they got and what the arrangement was] by cheque to my mother and asked her to release me, but she was unwilling. I am a girl and an only child and my mother wouldn’t let go. Call it family pressure if you will. It’s quite simple, really,” Preeti said, with a dismissive shrug and a short laugh. “So, you see me here.”"


Plagiarized Satyajit Ray Music Used on the Movie's Soundtrack

Contact Satyajit Ray Film Archive at University of California at Santa Cruz. The person in charge of the archive said he did NOT give permission to the filmmakers to use music from Ray's films, but they still did it copiously, amounting to plagiarism.


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Born Into Brothels Kids Sue Filmmakers!!??

Born Into Brothels Kids Sue Filmmakers!!??

News source at

(in Bengali; gist below)

On August 7, 2008, Ananda Bazar Patrika (ABP), a major daily newspaper in Calcutta, India (the location of the documentary) broke news that some children portrayed in the film brought a breach of promise lawsuit against the filmmakers. They did it on the ground that those including the much-publicized children who were promised that they'd share in some of the huge profit the film made did not receive any money after all.

I have a feeling the lawsuit may also have included the fact that the children's names were publicized across the globe, while the filmmakers had promised that their identities would be safeguarded. One of the featured kids also alleged that he didn't even know he was being filmed and interviewed for the purpose of making a documentary. In fact, that was an allegation frequently made by the sex workers themselves, and corroborated by the sex workers' union Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (DMSC) -- I've personally met with some of the leaders of the organization.

In my original letter to Hollywood AMPAS, I'd questioned whether the sex worker mothers' permissions had ever been obtained by the filmmakers when they'd intruded deeply into their personal lives. I subsequently found out by talking to these women that indeed, no such permission had ever been secured; as I mentioned above, DMSC told me that they were never informed that the filmmakers were filming them for this purpose.

(Additionally, Born Into Brothels directors copiously used Satyajit Ray's Apu Trilogy music, when the copyright holders for Ray films had specifically asked them not to do it. It's plain plagiarism.)

I translated about one hundred tapes full of such gross violation of privacy and intrusion into sex workers' personal lives and professions; and I did not get to translate many more. I know what was on the tapes I'd translated -- the large majority of which was never used in the documentary; I also know what came out as the final, edited product. In my opinion, it's scandalous, full of egregious lies, and purposefully biased against Calcutta (now called Kolkata), India and some of its less-fortunate people.

(Zana Briski told me a number of times that she hated Kolkata and would never want to go back: great gesture considering what she got out of exploiting its people and how the poor sex workers had protected her from any harms!)

I must tell you that even though as a media and human rights activist, I'm totally aware of big media's lies and craving for sensationalism (I frequently write about it -- read my blogs), in this case, the ABP journalist who broke this important story did a great job. I spoke with her on this too.

The fact is, the filmmakers' attempt to show off in the U.S. one of the featured kids named Avijit as the poster boy of their "successful mission" is outrageous. This now-pompous teenager also phoned me in New York and forced a long, rough argument with me. (How he got my phone number is anybody's guess.)

The fact that a happy and jovial girl like Puja (who was greatly exploited by the filmmakers) is now a disclosed-identity sex worker at this very young age, and the other children featured on the film are hopeless and lost (not to mention the sex worker mothers who now feel cheated and violated) is enough reason for bringing any breach of promise lawsuit against the filmmakers.

Nobody has approached me on this lawsuit and I don't know what the real motive is behind it, but if anyone asks me to testify to narrate my insight and experience, I'd be more than happy to do it.

I have no sympathy for self-aggrandizement and Hollywood-blessed lies, and that too, at the expense of poor peoples' privacy and misery. I believe that AMPAS revisit the issue, and revoke the Oscars it awarded to Born Into Brothels, on plagiarism and violation of ethics charges.

Thanks for your attention and action.



Partha Banerjee
M.Sc. (Journalism), Ph.D. (Biology)