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.



Susan said...

It sounds like they/you were/are ,looking to get something for nothing. Ms Briski was willing to help as long as the kids put in an effort, she stated that repeatedly in the film. One person can't do it for another. Also She was not there to interfere with family politics. If the kids didn't want to leave the brothel that was their choice. In my eyes she did all she could, and did an extrordnary job, some of those kids have futures now. They never would have had a choice had she not decided to come into the brothel.
It seems that you have some kind of adjenda for publishing this. Zana has every right to get paid for her work, she spent her time and money for 5 or more years helping these kids when she could have just walked away and left them to become sex workers.
By the way what you are doing is slander.

Monica said...

I completely agree with Susan. It seems like at least several of the kids are doing much better than they ever could have dreamed had they not been featured in the documentary.

For example, Avijit has been studying at NYU in NYC, with a quarter of his tuition being paid for by Kids with Cameras. Kochi has also been going to school in the US. They would have never come this far had it not been for Ms. Briski.

isabelbonjour said...

I agree with Susan as well. Zana actually tried to give those kids a good future. You must remember that the human race likes to complain a lot and jealousy is often there. Coming from a a third world country myself, I know greed, jealous and corruption very well. The union suing Zana is in fact, grown people, that are upset about not getting help from Zana or any money from her. They are obviously trying to get what they can from it all. Who blames them though when you live in those conditions? But you can't blame Zana either, there's just so much she can do.

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Ann Kos said...

People love scandals and therefore they tend to pick holes in everything. I agree with Susan. All of these children had a choice, and it was stated thet they would have get help only if thay had stayed in school. Ms. Briski did everything she could, considering that she was not a member of any charity organisation at the time. She was, and still is, just a photographer. And how exactly making profit is bad? After winning oscar and spending lots of money from this profit on school tuitions and Hope House project? I did not notice that there was any distorting of the facts or presenting India in a bad light. They filmed the life of these children and so. And that it was heavy and it would have been even harder without help? Is the fault of the filmmakers? They just filmed the reality.