I watched Zana Briski’s 2004 Oscar-winning documentary Born into Brothels as part of a film and media studies course. During the post-viewing discussion, my classmates waxed lyrical on the resilience of the children, the despair that they endured daily, and how the power of photography could pave their way out of the brothels and into New York City.
As the only student in the room who was a) a person of colour and b) from the land that the documentary was based on (nominally speaking), I had a few objections. For example, the fact that large portions of the footage featuring Calcutta’s red light district were filmed using hidden cameras, held at hip level, while the film crew walked the streets. The view this angle presented was slanted, to say the least. Leering men, ramshackle dwellings, foul-mouthed madams and pimps prowling the narrow streets. And the children, squatting in their poverty, staring up at the audience, jumping and gambolling for the Instamatic cameras that the filmmaker provided them as a form of art therapy (I think).
Born into Brothels brought to mind the 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God), a film that became associated with the phrase “poverty porn.” While City of God depicted the challenges of urban poverty in a humanizing way, other films were not so delicate. Slather on the poverty, the wasted limbs, the drug-addled brains of ex-convicts and the leering policemen lurching home from their favourite whorehouses. Swap out the urban topography with any other sprawling, under-developed locale, and bam! You have an Oscar contender. Brown faces, brown debris, and perhaps a white saviour.
During my film class, my professor put forth the notion of the insider’s point-of-view. Does the angle change if the person behind the camera shares a link, a culture, a heritage with the people being framed by the lens? My classmates (primarily of the Caucasian persuasion, given that I attended a small liberal arts college in Small Town, USA) did not think so. “Documentaries have no biases,” they claimed, and I choked back my dissent and thought not of documentary filmmakers – American and otherwise – who exploited their subjects so that they could present a particular point of view, one that may or may not have been shared by the subjects of the film.
I watched The Selling of Innocents, Ruchira Gupta’s Emmy-winning 1996 documentary on sex trafficking of young women from Nepal into Mumbai, with some trepidation. I thought to myself, is there an objective, yet sympathetic, lens through which one can portray the plight of these women? Can a filmmaker keep personal biases from permeating the screen? Even the mere act of editing hundreds of hours of footage into a forty-three-minute documentary is one way of revealing one’s particular point of view.
What I found was that the role of the cultural insider was instrumental in shaping the lens. The language barrier – the frustrations Zana Briski faced while trying to communicate with the subjects of her film – was eliminated, and the distance between the viewer and the subject seemed less vast. What did seem vast, however, was the urgency of the filmmaker. The need for advocacy, and the flesh-and-blood examples of men and women fighting on the forefronts of the sex trafficking war, seemed apparent. Here were men and women from the local community, exercising their social capital to undermine a seedy network that has altogether too many arms and legs and too many fingers in too many pies. There was a plan, a long-term mission, and a need to see the objective through. In other words, the urgency was palpable.
Shehtaz Huq is an English teacher in Rochester, New York. Her short fiction has appeared in Dhaka Tribune, The Daily Star, and The Marquis Literary Magazine.