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Kolkata's red light kids eye Oscars

By CNN's Marianne Bray

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The children on a field trip to see the ocean for the first time in their lives.
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(CNN) -- There are more than 7,000 prostitutes in Sonagchi, the red light district of Kolkata, and "Born into Brothels" chronicles the lives of eight of their children.

New York photojournalist Zana Briksi, intrigued by India, begins living in a brothel in this manic and chaotic part of town, where the destiny of many of the girls living in the squalor is to "join the line."

In so doing she starts charting the lives of children born to pimps and prostitutes in a seemingly hopeless world of brothel owners, police and organized crime syndicates, where mothers are seen cursing at other mothers, and children linger around male clients sipping a pre-sex drink.

While the filmgoer is initially drawn into the vibrant colors, sounds and chaos of India, the story really begins when Briksi gives each of the children a point-and-shoot camera and teaches them how to take shots of the grim world in which they live.

The children, on the lowest rank of the pecking order and often ill-treated, are drawn to the rare companionship she offers inside the maze of alleyways of this town formerly known as Calcutta.

"They didn't quite understand what I was doing there, but they were fascinated by me and my camera," says London-born but New York-based co-director Briksi, on the Web site of the group she helped found, Kids with Cameras.

And so it is this way we are drawn not only into their world but also into how they view their world.

"I want to show in pictures how people live in this city. I want to put across the behavior of man," says 13-year-old Gour, who dislikes his environment and wants to use photography to change it.

The children become transformed by the art of the camera. Likewise, the viewer is transformed not only by the beauty and explosions of color their pictures show of Bengali life, but by the possibility they may escape their mother's fate.

"When I have a camera in my hands I feel happy. I feel like I am learning something ... I can be someone," says 14-year-old Suchitra, who likes to take pictures of life on her rooftop.

It is through their photos and their interviews that the feisty, brutally candid, courageous and wickedly funny characters emerge and we are drawn into the beauty and dignity they find in their stigmatized and dire existence.

"We went to the beach to take pictures. I had never seen the ocean before. I was amazed,!" says 10-year-old Manik, who lives in a small room with his sister Shanti, and loves to fly kites while their mother is downstairs "working."

Kochi, 10, a shy and sweet girl who worries that she "might become like them" uses her camera to take pictures of her family, animals, gardens, and parks: "I feel shy taking pictures outside. People taunt us. They say, 'Where did they bring those cameras from?'"

Charismatic and restless 11-year-old painter Avijit is the most promising of them all, producing stunning photos with great light and composition. But he is realistic about his lot. His father, once respected, has become a hash addict and his mother is burnt in the kitchen, reportedly by her pimp.

It is Briski's omnipresence that holds everything together and as the film unfolds, and the director's involvement in it grows, so does that of the viewer.

We watch with bated breath as she tries to convince the mothers to enlist the children into a private boarding school; as she tries to find ways of getting around India's sagging bureaucracy so that Avijit can fly to Amsterdam for an award; and as she gathers up the children so they can turn up for an exhibition of their pictures in Kolkata.

Stunningly emotional, but devoid of overwhelming sentimentality, the film released by Red Light Films and co-directed by Ross Kauffman, shows how much difference one person can make in an often intractable life.

Kolkata's red light children are now excited about being contenders for best documentary in the 77th Academy Awards.


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