I finally saw the documentary “Born into Brothels”, a touching film in which a photographer documenting the lives of women in the red light district in Calcutta ends up befriending the children born there, teaching them the art of photography and attempting to get them away from the brothels and moved into boarding schools. OK, not much about Vikings here, but it is close enough to a book review, and I’ve already warned you that I would be doing those. Plus I found a not-too-roundabout way to connect it to theoretical issues in folkloristics, so it is still somewhat related to my field…
I’ve seen some comments online to the effect that the film was more about Zana, the photographer who came up with the idea– she certainly appears as the protagonist, and to the extent that her centrality to the narrative becomes clear, it is possible to feel disappointed in the artifice of it all, to feel like this is “Zana’s chance” for an award-winning story. One commenter felt that it would have been better to have more of the candid shots, the camera just sitting there invisibly while “real life” happened. I think this criticism goes too far, and in the wrong direction. True, we want this to be the story of these kids, but the supposedly “candid” shot is only an excuse for the audience to feel invisible, to make the viewer feel like he/she is not present in the action as a disruptive, disembodied, grotesque and voyeuristic mechanical eye. We find a similar problem in folkloristics– the urban Western world’s search for the “authentic” leads to the objectification of the “folk”. How would you like to be put under a microscope? Well, we all get examined by doctors, but under the condition that it is something that happens to everyone, not just one particular type or class of person (and there is the assumption that the doctor is there to serve us). To some extent Zana takes our (us being upper middle-class Westerners) position as the foreign, privileged see-er, hearer, etc, in the scene. Centering the narrative around her, while it may have its share of problems (more on those below), at least reminds us that this is an intersubjective situation and keeps us aware of our own strangeness in that context. Not a scientist looking in on some bugs behind glass, but a person embedded in a concrete situation, attempting to understand the others there, on their own terms (ideally). The brothels are not a closed system– observing them is itself an action within them, or within the larger context in which they are embedded.
I particularly liked the role of the camera in the story. At one point one of the kids says that what he likes about photography is that he can take a picture of someone or something he loves, so that he will still have them even after it or they are gone or dead. Leaving aside all the other fascinating things going on in that statement, I find this interesting in light of one of the basic assumptions behind a documentary like this: These children only “matter”, they are only seen, they will only be remembered once they are captured on film. By giving cameras to these powerless ones whom we pity so much, and emphasizing their own telling and showing of their world and their lives, the documentary grants them a degree of agency, more than children will typically get in a film, documentary or otherwise.
That said, the image of the “Benevolent West” feels a bit overbearing at times. It is this Benevolent Western World which “grants” them their voices, after all– as though they can be nothing without “Us”, as though they only matter when they speak our language. Near the end the narrative does seem to get reduced to the saintly Zana’s heroic efforts to bring the benefits of the Western world (education–though I will say, I am a “true believer” in the benefits of education myself) to these (at times reluctant) children, despite the barbaric treatment (cursing and beating) and superstitions (“no, I won’t let her go on Thursday, because it’s a bad day to do anything special”) of the “native” adults. Even the agency and subjectivity of these children through their photographs is only powerful to the degree that they are marketable, both the persons and their products– salvation through integration into the system of Western capitalism. In fact, a significant part of the capital they bring to the table is their misfortune and their position as the naive and innocent in the third-world urban jungle. An authentic “folk” for (and to enable) post-modern humanitarianism (which, whatever its benefits, certainly becomes a sort of feel-good entertainment at times). Beyond that, they become subjects to the degree that they become Western subjects, taking on the “eye” of the First World (in the current sense of “developed countries”), from which they can look back on the Third World from which they came– they are “people” to the extent that they separate themselves from they place they came from.
Well, sure, we could pull all these issues and more out of our dissection of the film, and they may be more or less valid– but overall I feel very positive about the documentary, and I think that Zana’s approach to helping the children is creative and effective (to a reasonable degree), and the film did pretty well in terms of granting the kids agency and voice. I suppose one can’t really judge it without being there– even apart from the fact that a film must be cut, there is the fact that not everything can be filmed. Taken as is, and assuming genuine goodwill on the part of Zana, I am not in the mood to complain too much. Certainly it doesn’t solve the larger issues of poverty and the market demand for people’s bodies, but it is still a concrete gain.
Apart from the representation of these issues in documentaries, here are a couple of less-entertaining (but maybe more practical) sources on the issue of human trafficking. A couple of my friends have just wrapped up a year in the Phillipines. Their funding came from a Fullbright scholarship and from generous people, and hopefully a novel on human trafficking will be coming out of this eventually. Their time there is done, but you can still see their blog. International Justice Mission, which they are associated with (among other programs) can be found here. They also worked with Samaritana, a more aggressively faith-oriented organization.
Human trafficking doesn’t just happen abroad– I was surprised to learn a few years ago that Oakland is a major West Coast hub for trafficked women and children. The New Day for Children safehouse is an attempt to provide a place for young women who are afraid they will be forced back into prostitution by their pimps. It is a faith-based program. They are one of the few groups providing this sort of service– largest program on the West Coast, I believe I heard, and they don’t even have enough money to care for more than about a dozen girls right now. I’m sure donations would be welcome.
Human trafficking and the sex trade take up an enormous chunk of the worldwide economy (just under drugs, from what I am told, and likely to surpass that–people are reusable assets, after all), and I expect it would be good to be more aware of this issue. It doesn’t just happen in poor, exotic countries on the other side of the world, or to people who want it or probably deserve it.
Side note on Vikings: From what we can tell, Vikings were not actually known for using rape warfare in the Middle Ages (in contrast to other armies both then and now), and in Frankia they did very little slaving. Ireland was not so lucky as far as slaves go, though we have at least one Irish princess in the sagas, bought as a slave in Russia by an Icelander. She ends up as one of the stronger female characters in a saga full of strong women, and she manages for her son to claim his royal ancestry. You can read about Melkorka and her son Óláfr pái (Olaf Peacock) in Laxdœla saga, translated as “The saga of the people of Laxardal”, among other titles. Generally slaves and servants are not portrayed particularly well in the sagas– at least not in Gísla saga (The saga of Gisli) and Grettis saga (The saga of Grettir). Those in Iceland with a smaller reserve of honor than a land-owning male of the farming aristocracy typically did not count for much in the sagas. As for “the world’s oldest profession”, I imagine there were women available for pirates and merchants in the Viking age towns– there were in the medieval ones. As to the degree of agency those women had in their profession, well, it’s not a path a woman would have chosen for the sake of her honor. More on the nature of Viking/Medieval Icelandic honor later– but if you’d like to read ahead, try this book, or this one. Carol Clover’s article “Regardless of Sex” is a good introduction to and reading of the nature of gender and honor in Medieval Iceland. If you can get access to www.jstor.org (I get it through UC Berkeley– not sure how much a subscription costs), you can download a PDF.