I had heard Zana Briski interview on Fresh Air (NPR) a year or so ago. We watched her win an Oscar for this documentary. Everyone on SAWNET (South Asian Women’s Network) has been talking about it. So, we rented it.
The DVD sat on the corner of our TV table for a few days because I was afraid to watch it. I need to be emotionally ready to watch a movie about the poor children in Calcutta. Naturally, it will be depressing.
Instead I was amazed and touched by this film. Basically, Zana is an American who lives in a red light district of Calcutta. She gives cameras to the children of the neighborhood and teaches them about photography. What these children see through the lens has not been seen before. Normally, people shy away from photographs – illegal prostitution and drugs/alcohol sales are livelihoods for them. The children are able to freely enter this world and capture it on film.
The documentary focuses on each of the eight children. They talk freely as children do, though at times their faces show more than their words do.
One child, Avijit, was a truly gifted artist. His paintings had exquisite use of light, shadow and details. His photographs were unique and his observations were acute. At a gallery exhibit, a reporter asked “Avijit, what would you like to be when you grow up?” He paused and said “A photographer”.
That pause indicated to me that Avijit was never asked that question before. He never had an option. How could you be allowed to dream when your mother was gone, father was stoned daily and your elderly grandmother sold alcohol at home for income? Life was taken one day at a time. Tomorrow will be just as hard as today.
However, were it not for Zana, Avijit’s talent and energy would have become a “raisin in the sun.” He was on the verge of becoming angry and such frustrated intensity would only go wrong.
She helped him into a good school. And, in the follow up section, Avijit commented that going to New York is just a hollow dream. Yet, Avijit was now studying at a prestigious school in the US.
What I loved foremost about this movie is that the street children became alive. Children are the same everywhere. Watching these children run onto a beach reminded me of my daughter on the beach – running towards the waves with giggles and trepidation. On a bus ride, the children sing and dance to popular Hindi songs.
The heartbreaking component is that we spend our energies protecting our child’s innocence and building her self-esteem. These children are not given that privilege; they are cursed and berated by adults and live in a world of negative energy. All the wonderful optimism children have is stolen from them. The adults in their lives treat them this way because that is how they were treated. The biggest dream one mother had for her daughter was to become a prostitute in Mumbai rather than Calcutta. This is their circle of life.
Zana did more than give these children cameras. She gave them life. She gave them hope.
She sought boarding schools for the children in her group (they needed to be removed from that environment). She lost two of her students to prostitution; the families see the children as another source of income in the house. She desperately fought for these children – negotiating and arguing with authorities to arrange paperwork, HIV tests, and interviews.
On the DVD, there is a special feature called “Reconnecting” where Zana visits the children three years later. From 10 year olds, they have become pre-teens. One girl cried holding onto Zana. Words couldn’t express to Zana how grateful she was for what she gave her.
She took their photographs to New York. Arranged gallery exhibits in Calcutta. Eventually had their photographs and stories published into a book. “Kids with Cameras” has become a full mission and Zana has received funding to build a school and grounds for the children.