Born into Brothels, Five Years Later

One of the pivotal points of my career was serving as the acting Executive Director of Kids with Cameras from 2004-2005. I started working with Ross Kauffman, Zana Briski and Geralyn Dreyfous in the organization's start-up phase, and while they were in the throes of the wildly successful film festival run of Born into Brothels.

The documentary, which would eventually win the Academy Award, was a clear demonstration of the power of film to be a strong persuasive element of a campaign for social action. And the film, along with the experience of working with the board and staff of KwC, showed me how one might harness the power of cultural assets in creating engagement and demonstrating social impact.

This December marks five years after the theatrical release of the film. This past summer, Sameer Padania of WITNESS, asked me to revisit the film during a screening at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. I hadn't seen it in nearly three years, and it struck me how relevant the film still is, continuing to be a great example of craft and visual artistry, and of a mission media film that expertly centers is message through story, character and plot.

Social change, at its very basic foundations, begins with a shift in perception. Born into Brothels demonstrates that shift at two levels: within the film and with the film. Within the film, Zana and Ross explored how direct, personal engagement might open up avenues of expression and how visual language and the arts lead to shifts in the children's self-perception and their ability to question and ultimately accept or reject their circumstances.

With the film, KwC's staff and stakeholders participated in creating what was ultimately an organically grown cross-media platform (the film, two websites, a book, the children's photographs, exhibits, speaking engagements and the nonprofit organization) that harnessed the audience's passion and commitment and engaged them toward action, donation and volunteerism to change circumstances faced by the children in the film and those like them around the world, through arts education and stewardship. The organization's work to scale its photography workshops to other locations inspired a number of other individuals and organizations to put cameras into the hands of children and affected populations around the world.

The film continues to present relevant questions about what is possible through individual action, direct and personal engagement, the act of listening, working within and against local systems, and the use of the arts and storytelling in exploring new circumstances and identity. To this day, people tell me the film inspires their own projects and organizations. And Kids with Cameras still gives back to the original community in Calcutta. The organization's leadership remains in close contact with most of the children (now entering adulthood) and the KwC website has updates on them. The website also has information about the organization's cornerstone project, to build Hope House, which will provide a home and center for the girls of the red light district to learn and develop life skills that will break their cycle of poverty, while still remaining close to their families. In Geralyn's words, the home will be "a place to foster creativity, arts, mentorship and education for the children of prostitutes who want a different day for their children." The organization continues to remain dedicated to the core value demonstrated in the film, to work toward self-expression through arts education and stewardship, challenging the status quo for a new generation of kids.

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