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Born into Brothels

Yesterday, the most mythologized of American holidays, we were driving with another couple to the Amana colonies, where we intended to eat our own version of The Feast. But when we got there, the restaurants were full. I had not to asked when I called whether they expected crowds. From the Ox Yoke Inn poured generations: relieved grandparents, harried parents, bewildered children. All wore the face of shock that says the wind chill is much colder than it should be.

We had Boca burgers and good pie. That was the whole of our feasting for Thanksgiving day. So we gave up on the Amanas and drove back to Iowa City where, to our chagrin, all the restaurants were closed, even our preferred standby, Thai Flavors Community Restaurant, which bore a sign that said “Closed until December.” Usually when Thai Flavors is closed for that long, it means someone in Pak or Cherry’s family is ill and they are in Thailand—I hope that’s not the case this time.

But Village Inn, we finally discovered, was not closed. There we had Boca burgers and good (but decidedly not America’s best) pie. That was the whole of our feasting for Thanksgiving day. We did have leftovers for supper, but it was leftover tofu loaf from Wednesday. After we finished that, we watched Born into Brothels.

Born into Brothels (which won the Oscar for Best Documentary in 2004) follows about ten children who live in a red light district in Calcutta. Prostitution is all they have known: Puja’s mother, for example, was second generation. At the beginning of the film, prostitution is all any of them—but most especially the girls—will ever know. Yet the story is of the photography classes that Zana Briski, the documentarian, teaches. It seems her decision to teach the children photography was at first a pragmatic one. The nature of the district is to shun cameras and other Western eyes; her clothing, her cameraman make her too conspicuous, and the district’s residents and its visitors avoid their gaze. The kids, however, live there. Their eyes are incorrigible even if they are enhanced by cameras. Briski’s insight is that of the anthropologist’s—to live among is not yet even the same as to live. The kids return startling photographs, and out of their photographs comes the means to their escape from the brothels.

Briski’s work as a documentarian is decidedly other than journalistic—as “journalistic work” is often defined, that is. She remarks that she is no social worker, yet for these kids, in spite of Roger Ebert’s sad wide-angle shot of all the kids Briski does not work to save, she manages to give them something. (Ebert’s vision is surely warranted, and it is a corrective [for Ebert can still be an insightful reviewer] to the clichés that grace the DVD box and which surely followed the movie as it aired in town after town: “Inspiring!” claims one blurb.) The very fact that outside is out means that outside cannot show the inside at all. Briski sells the kids’ photographs at Sotheby’s, in a book, and uses their story (of course) in a movie, and through it all sets up a foundation to provide for all of their educations. What is given to them is a future, and yet while it’s a gift, it’s more than a gift too: they sold what they already had, which was their eyes; the gift was primarily in the cameras and in the access to money that Briski had. By film’s end several have been accepted into boarding schools; one has been recognized by international photographers as very talented and has traveled to Amsterdam. And the DVD’s extras reveal that all of the kids in the class avoided “joining the line” of prostitutes in the district.

The story of Born into Brothels is also that of the fiction of Cidade de Deus, where a camera is a child’s means to leave the life of which one is a part, especially if that life is living in our world’s special brand of medieval squalor that is a few drugs or a kilometer away from modernity. It’s a postcolonial dream of which I’ve seen several versions lately, including Millions, which depicts the dream from the perspective of bourgeois life. And it’s a dream that is a fully-formed commentary on perspective (although Millions seems to deny this part of the imaginary): to show the inside to others is to forge your own path outside. This path is not made without help, but the very fact that outside is out means that outside cannot show the inside at all. There are a number of ways to think of this less abstractly, some of which are very cynical, others of which probably need more empirical evidence to prove. The story, however, is always informed by what we know of how the rich are concerned with the poor and vice versa, and how one comes to know the other, or seeks to show itself to the other, or how one or the other hides, is integral to the plot.

In that way, I guess, although we didn’t intend it to be so, watching Born into Brothels was actually a nice counterstory to Thanksgiving. Yes, part of me missed the feasting and reconnecting with family—but I know we’ll get plenty of that next month. Thanksgiving in practice, though, means very little to me. To travel, to feast, to celebrate family, to remember what we are thankful for: it’s all wealth and abundance for its own sake. It doesn’t reveal much about what it might mean to be thankful. Yes, I am raising a question that has plagued the modern world for centuries, one answered at various times by “sympathy” or by the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future: can one who is rich know real thanks? In one of the DVD extras, all of the kids in Born into Brothels gather together to say “Thank you,” to Zana Briski. They all had finally watched the film about them. The movie had reminded each of them of the lives they led, of how they had no choice to leave their district. That memory had been etched on their faces as they watched. And that memory was at the center of their thanks.

 

Comments

i’d always wondered…no, i can’t say always…but have recently wondered if thanksgiving had more to do with the civil war (and bringing together a war-torn nation, and possibily centralizing power in the head of state rather than the heads of states) than with the pilgrims…not that plymouth rock and all haven’t been a part of u.s. fall harvest conmemorations.

i’m quite ill, but will possibly recount our experience in a little bit.

that could just be the fever speaking parenthetically.

i’ve got a few ties from the amanas (they are, i think, older than myself) they’re really nice wool ties.

There’s a pretty significant article that discusses CW and Thanksgiving floating around our office somewhere, by Amy Kaplan, pub’d in American Literature in 1998. It details at length Sarah Josepha Hale’s campaign to make Txgiving a national holiday as a means of creating a national homogeneous narrative. (It’s probably linkable through JSTOR.)

I don’t think the Amanas make ties anymore, but there’s a leather shop and a bunch of wineries that make sweet fruit and dandelion wines. Lots of Xmas shops, too.

i’ve always wanted to make my own dandelion wine…ever since reading ray bradbury’s rather wonderful novel of depression era small town life by the title of the wine back when i was fifteen.

i’ve even collected a series of dandelion wine recipes…but not yet have i set about making it.

It’s okay stuff. Supersweet, but okay.

we took rose to the zoo at t’giving. no turkeys there though.

hope the illness isn’t food-related. guess it doesn’t matter where it came from when you feel crummy.