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Man Ray's struggle with photography as art led to experiments with film he called cine-poem. Nearly a century later, the lure of visual media remains strong, and film-goers familiar with the 2005 Academy Award winning documentary Born Into Brothels continue to be spellbound by its music and imagery. The Duke Performances Statements of Fact series presented a multi-media event featuring the Born Into Brothels Ensemble at Duke University's Page Auditorium. The participants were John McDowell, piano; Kanika Pandey, traditionally-trained vocalist; Samir Chatterjee, who grew up in Calcutta, tabla; jazz guitarist Ken Wessel; and Steve Gorn, who played on the soundtrack for the film, bansuri (bamboo flute).
Created from original film footage by Ross Kauffman and Zana Briski, stills by children from Sonagachi, and the soundtrack by the award winning composer, the work involves musicians in the foreground and live video-projected visual overlays simulating the look of animation cels. It was fascinating, but there were moments where the live images got in the way — Suchitra's stunning photograph of the smiling young girl in blue and Kochi's vivid portrait of the bucket-carrying subjects on the staircase, for example.
McDowell's score fuses traditional Indian music and jazz, stitched together with understated piano work beneath. Overall, he captures the essence of the film. Samir Chatterjee's tabla playing in the "overture," for example, resonates with the chaotic pulse of Calcutta's red light district. Paired with close-ups of the deep brown eyes of the innocent, one experiences the world through their eyes. And Kanika Pandey, singing with a myriad of colors, with jewel-like ornamentation and delicate gestures, and matching the contrast of darkness and light, added to the sense of authenticity.
Individual pieces, named for the young photographers, and solo material, helped personalize the subjects of the film. Symbolizing Kochi's flight, for example, we heard recorded birds along with Steve Gorn's deftly played flute solo. Wessel's exquisite guitar playing underscored the improvised life of children in the ghetto. Even McDowell's blues "raga," which evoked scenes of post-Katrina New Orleans, brought home universal themes of women and children in poverty.
And though the music worked beautifully in the original format, as foreground material I wanted to hear more "bottom" to hold up the Western-style harmonic structures and a real sitar instead of recorded drone.
A contribution to Duke Performances Statements of Fact series, Born Into Brothels Ensemble's performance also contributes meaningfully to the advancement of the Kids wth Cameras project. But it falls short artistically in comparison to the unforgettable photography of Zana Briski and her young artists, which stands on its own. In the companion book to the film, Diane Weyermann, Director of the Sundance Documentary Film Program, wrote about the children's work, "...they reflect something much larger, morally encouraging and even politically volatile: art as an immensely liberating and empowering force."