When the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary were announced last month, directors Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman celebrated by swilling canned sodas with a group of Indian preteens. The New York-based duo were in Calcutta, India, visiting children from the city’s red-light district, whose lives they chronicle in their film “Born Into Brothels,” which is in the midst of an extended run at Film Forum and has just opened in Los Angeles.
“We brought the kids to our hotel, and we were waiting for the phone call,” says Kauffman from L.A., where he and Briski had traveled for the film’s West Coast premiere last week. “I had a little Treo phone, and I put it on speaker.” The kids — even though most of them had never heard of the Oscars — reacted in the time-honored fashion of jumping up and down and screaming. “We had a great time that night,” he adds. “We ordered as many Cokes and Sprites as possible.”
Such extravagance is the exception for Briski and Kauffman, who had to rely on grants and, more often, their credit cards to finance the film. (They finished production owing more than $50,000.) Briski, who grew up in London and Montreal and studied religion at Cambridge, first visited the teeming back alleys of the Sonagachi quarter in 1997.
“I was really blown away by the place and knew that’s where I wanted to be,” she says. So much so that she moved into the brothels in order to live among the pimps and prostitutes whom she planned to research. For the next six years, she shuttled between New York and Calcutta. “Usually I’d come back with some disease like hepatitis, so I’d be relieved to just recover and plan the next trip,” Briski adds. (In the course of her fieldwork, she also suffered from malaria, dysentery and the frequent headaches of dealing with the Indian bureaucracy.)
Upon immersing herself in Calcutta’s underworld, Briski became close to the prostitutes’ children, who were curious about her and her camera. Along with trips to the zoo, the beach, and a local water park, she organized a photography class, which became the heart of the documentary. Briski, a photographer by trade, had no experience in film but was determined to capture the enthusiasm and talent of her students. “I just started shooting with a video camera,” she says. Eventually, she called Kauffman, who at the time was a film editor and also her boyfriend — they were together for six years but now have a platonic relationship — and asked him to come help make a film.
This story first appeared in the February 3, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Now that they’ve become Sundance stars and Academy Award contenders, Kauffman and Briski haven’t abandoned their senses of perspective. Through Kids With Cameras, the foundation that Briski established to “empower children through the art of photography,” they’ve arranged a Sotheby’s auction of the Indian children’s prints and have thus far raised $100,000 for their educations. They’ve also begun negotiations to open a boarding school in Calcutta for children from the brothels.
As for the Oscars, Briski herself might have to depend on a little charity. “It’ll be fun to dress up, but I haven’t thought about it yet,” she says. “I’m still waiting for someone to donate something, because I can’t afford a dress!”