“We brought the kids to our hotel, and we were waiting for the phone call,” says Kauffman from L.A., where he and Briski had traveled for the film’s West Coast premiere last week. “I had a little Treo phone, and I put it on speaker.” The kids — even though most of them had never heard of the Oscars — reacted in the time-honored fashion of jumping up and down and screaming. “We had a great time that night,” he adds. “We ordered as many Cokes and Sprites as possible.”
Such extravagance is the exception for Briski and Kauffman, who had to rely on grants and, more often, their credit cards to finance the film. (They finished production owing more than $50,000.) Briski, who grew up in London and Montreal and studied religion at Cambridge, first visited the teeming back alleys of the Sonagachi quarter in 1997.
“I was really blown away by the place and knew that’s where I wanted to be,” she says. So much so that she moved into the brothels in order to live among the pimps and prostitutes whom she planned to research. For the next six years, she shuttled between New York and Calcutta. “Usually I’d come back with some disease like hepatitis, so I’d be relieved to just recover and plan the next trip,” Briski adds. (In the course of her fieldwork, she also suffered from malaria, dysentery and the frequent headaches of dealing with the Indian bureaucracy.)
Upon immersing herself in Calcutta’s underworld, Briski became close to the prostitutes’ children, who were curious about her and her camera. Along with trips to the zoo, the beach, and a local water park, she organized a photography class, which became the heart of the documentary. Briski, a photographer by trade, had no experience in film but was determined to capture the enthusiasm and talent of her students. “I just started shooting with a video camera,” she says. Eventually, she called Kauffman, who at the time was a film editor and also her boyfriend — they were together for six years but now have a platonic relationship — and asked him to come help make a film.