In 1992, long before he made his dramatic right turn after 9/11, Christopher Hitchens called Mother Teresa the "ghoul of Calcutta." He chided her for supporting dictators and for telling the poor, among whom she worked, to endure their misery and look forward to the promise of Heaven. That, Hitchens said, was unacceptable, especially from a cleric whose spiritual leader enjoys such wealth, privilege and excellent health care.
But then, as now, Heaven may be the only destination for their kind. How can anyone hope to turn around the dead-end lives we witness in Born into Brothels, Zana Briski and Ross Kauffman's Oscar-winning documentary about the children and grandchildren of women who work in Calcutta's red-light district? How many generations, and how many trillions of dollar-fed rupees, will it take before outsourcing spreads to them?
In her film, Briski does more than just show us their lives: Rare in documentary cinema -- as if answering Hitchens' call -- she gets involved, living among her subjects on and off for several years, and teaching a group of eight kids to take photographs, which stimulates their hopes and dreams. One little girl, determined to be happy no matter what her circumstance, says, "One has to accept life as being sad and painful." A boy observes the squalor of his community -- the filthiest he's ever seen anywhere in the world -- and tells us, "I want to put across the behavior of man."
You can see these children are bright, curious, even spirited kids -- often smiling or laughing, and rarely looking as sullen or distant as you'd expect of children in these surroundings. They call Briski "Zana Auntie," and she takes them on trips -- to the zoo, to the beach, to Europe for a photo exhibition -- and tries to get them into boarding schools. But no school wants the children of sex workers. So Sotheby's, Amnesty International and a New York photographer become involved in fund-raising for their cause.
The stories of these children are interesting, but all in all, Briski spends too much time repeating herself and too little time probing the mechanics and the culture that keep them in their place. Her film leaves you with absolutely no sense of the magnitude of the problem. Nor does she develop or delineate her characters very well. One family, in fact, isn't poor at all: They're comfortable Brahmins, and also third-generation prostitutes, a fate that awaits young Puja if Briski can't help her. These class distinctions are another aspect of Indian life that Briski fails to teach us anything about.
In the end, Briski creates more of a tribute to her devotion than a film about a social issue. This is somewhat unfortunate, considering she doesn't have much of a happy ending on her hands. Still, she does appear to save one little girl, although it's literally one in a million. In English and Bengali, with subtitles.