Born into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids

First time filmmakers and Academy Award winners Zana Briski and Ross Kaufman have given audiences a sensitive and realistic view of what life looks like a cramped, dirty, chaotic world – that of prostitutes and their children of Calcutta’s red light district.


Zana Briski first went to Calcutta to photograph the life of the women of the district but ended up doing two things. She taught eight children how to take photographs and at the same time learned from eight children about hope.


Born into Brothels is a very simple film. Zana introduces the children and we see their lives, families and the amazing photographs they take of their world. Zana decides to help the children have a chance at a better life. She sells the photographs to make enough money to send the children to boarding school. She struggles to find schools who will take the children of prostitutes, because most will not; she struggles with an impossibly out-dated bureaucracy to get their papers together to meet the schools’ criteria for acceptance; then she struggles with the children’s’ deterministic attitudes and those of their families.


There are parts of the film that are shocking because the reality is too harsh to imagine. Yet, I came to a greater understanding of the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and why she cared for the poorest of the poor without the hope of changing social structures from the top down. Like Mother Teresa, the filmmakers, through art, tried to make a difference in the lives of eight children, one child at a time. They did what they could. They did not want to make a film just to pay the bills; the film is a result of their realization of the fine balance between art and social responsibility – about caring. We will never know if the filmmakers have succeeded in the long run; but we are encouraged by their example to put love into action and try, even for the sake of one child, to make a difference.


Congratulations to the Academy for recognizing this film.


Mr. and Mrs. Copperbottom (voices of Stanley Tucci and Dianne Weist) become the parents of Rodney (Ewan McGregor) after twelve hours of labor to assemble their made-to-order baby ‘bot. As Rodney “grows” up, his interchangeable parts are replaced with “hand-me-downs”, or “pre-owned” parts. The Copperbottom’s don’t have much money; after all, dad is a dishwasher.


When Rodney grows up he wants to become like his idol, Mr. Bigweld (Mel Brooks), whose on air persona wants to help all the robots by inventing things and supplying them with spare parts so they don’t have to buy expensive news ones. Rodney is very creative and he takes his invention to the big city to sell to Mr. Bigweld. There he discovers that Bigweld is missing and his place taken at the helm of the corporation by Ratchet (Greg Kinnear).


Rodney and the other ‘bots he meets join forces to combat Ratchet and his Manchurian Candidate-like mother who do away with replacement parts and demand that the ‘bots only buy new models or be banished to the junk yard.


Robots is highly entertaining animation (for kids and adults) and the pop-culture dialogue is very funny (mostly adults).


I suppose Robots is intended as just fun, kind of an anthropomorphic-like morality tale (using robots instead) about the mechanical dehumanization of Fordism and planned obsolescence of manufactured goods. But I had three issues with it. One, I disliked the use of mail-order “children”; smacks of genetic selection, even though toys do have to be assembled. Two, it’s easy to accept animals as having human characteristics because they will never be human;but the humanization of robots is another matter. Lots of questions arise about the nature of the human person (a good thing), but since robots will never be able to reflect upon themselves reflecting, I didn’t care for the humanization of the machine and the mechanization of the human. What is it saying about the nature of the human person? Three, the battle between good and evil. Life just isn’t that simple and neither is conflict. Did the characters even try negotiation as a way to resolve conflict? No, only violence. This kind of ideology is repeated over and over in children’s movies, maybe because it’s easy.


I wish our creative people and entertainment industries wouldn’t take the easy way out to resolve conflict so often.


Robots is a fun flick, but take the time to talk it.


Vanishing Point (1997) new DVD release

Jimmy Kowlaski, played by Viggo Mortensen before he became Aragorn, is a young ex-race car driver who served in the original Gulf War as an Army Ranger. He and his wife Raphinia (Christine Elise) live in rural Idaho and do not have much money. Jimmy is partners in a garage business and occasionally delivers refurbished race cars to their owners for extra cash.


He leaves his wife in bed at home to deliver a car; she is very pregnant and there is certain to be complications for her delivery because she has lupus.


When he arrives at the first delivery point, he gets the opportunity to deliver yet another car even further away from home. Along the way, he calls to check up on his wife. When she doesn’t answer one day, Jimmy calls a neighbor and finds out his wife is in the hospital and things don’t look good. He decides to drive home – really fast.


Along the way Jimmy remembers how he met his wife, her faith, and that she wanted him to become a Catholic like her as a condition for them marrying.


Problems start when Jimmy gets in a hurry going from one point to the hospital where his wife’s condition is deteriorating. Instead of stopping for the highway patrol when they go after him for speeding, he just keeps going (really fast) and causes some spectacular pyrotechnic crashes. He is helped by people along the way: a former Marine who gives him a police scanner, an Indian who shows up out of nowhere when Jimmy decides to travel through the brush instead of the road, a disaffected war vet holed up in a cave and his girlfriend, and the “Voice” of a radio jockey (Jason Priestly) who keeps the truth about Jimmy’s life alive when the FBI think he’s a terrorist.


This TV remake of Vanishing Point by writer-director Charles R. Carner (Judas) takes as its starting point a cult favorite from 1971 – which I have not seen. Carner explained to me: “I loved the originalwhen it came out (I was a high school freshman) – hadn’t seen it in 25 years, decided to rent it on video – was appalled at how bad it was – but realized that the central concept was not only great, but even more timely in the Clinton Nineties than it had been in the Nixon Seventies.” 


What’s interesting about this film now is that it might make the current political administration nervous, depending on one’s interpretation. Its critique of the “Man” is pretty obvious and a certain throw-back to the original film, though this is not Jimmy’s issue. He just wants to get to his wife. What might be its strongest point, the faith that Jimmy is seeking on this road trip on “speed” (automotive, not drugs) and that his wife enjoys, is a bit corny towards the end. It would have worked better if the story suggested more than what it shows.


As Carner admits, “I’m amazed we got away with so much!”


I don’t know why the has this rated “R” – I think it is an error and might be referring to the original film. This TV movie offers many themes to talk about, such as marriage, fidelity, faith, seeking, family, life in America today, the situation of the media vis-a-vis government, civil law, and morality. It’s never too clear how Jimmy’s race to the vanishing point is justified – but that’s another point to talk about, too.


(Charlie Carner and I are both members of Catholic in Media Associates here in Los Angeles, and it is a priveledge to know him and his work.)


National Film Retreat 2005

“The magic of movies and the Sacraments. The Holy Spirit revealed in challenging, surprising and delightful ways.  Creative interchange. Mutual support. Imaginations on fire!  Not bad for a retreat.  What a great experience!”

•  Bob Bonnot, Senior VP for Programming, The Hallmark Channel

6th Annual

        National Film Retreat




The Seduction of Power


“Nearly all men can stand adversity;

but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”

Abraham Lincoln


July 22 – 24, 2005



3918 Chipman Road

Easton, PA18045


(Allentown Airport)


Slate of films:



Please visit the web site for registration, cost, schedule and other information:


                             When Fantasy, Fortune and Blessing Meet  


On a brilliant summer day in the north of England, two young lads race across a field that will soon become a housing development. As they roll in the grass, they imagine what their new home will be like, for the Cunningham family is moving. The boys’ mother, Maureen (Jane Horgath), has died, and their dad, Ronnie, (James Nesbitt) wants to move them from the city to get on with their lives.

When moving day arrives, seven-year old Damien (Alex Etel) collects the packing boxes from all the new appliances and carries them off to build his own cardboard house near the train tracks. Damien talks to his friends, the saints, who appear to him. He always asks them if they have met his mom, St. Maureen.

One day as he is playing, a large duffle bag crashes into his cardboard dwelling. It is full of money (British pounds). Damien thinks it is a gift from God. He runs to tell his older brother, nine-year old Anthony (Lewis McGibbon). They think the bag holds millions, but it’s more like a few hundred thousand pounds. Damien wants to tell their dad, but Anthony, the shrewd junior economist, insists that they hide it. Little by little, Anthony spends it on cell phones and the like, but Damien wants to give it away to help the poor because he is convinced that God sent the money. He stuffs it in the mail box of some young missionary Mormons who live nearby and he takes homeless people to a restaurant to feed them, much to Anthony’s chagrin. There are only afew days for the boys to dispose of the money before the country changes over to the Euro standard.

Damien’s saints continue to visit him. One day he sees a large group of African men working and he realizes they are the 45 Ugandan Martyrs (dd.1885-1887). One of them tells Damien they don’t want all the things that money can buy, just a little bit so they can have a well. Pure, clean water is their most precious treasure and greatest need.

As Christmas draws closer, a young woman named Dorothy (Daisy Donovan) comes to the children’s school, All Saints, to collect coins from the out-going currency to help the poor in developing countries dig wells. Damien is inspired by Dorothy and drops a thousand pounds into the bin. The boys’ secret is out and their dad is called in for a conference.

Meanwhile, a menacing stranger visits Damien in his hut, looking for the money, the saints continue to reinforce Damien’s faith and generosity, and as the currency deadline looms, things get very complicated indeed.

The Saints

The most original aspect of Millions is the litany of saints who appear to Damien, from St. Peter (“First century but date of death unknown”), to St. Nicholas of Smyrna, to St. Francis and St. Clare (who tells us how she came to be the patroness of television), to the Ugandan Martyrs who were canonized in 1964 – and some others in between.

Damien has an encyclopedic familiarity with the lives of the saints and a teacher helps the school children think of contemporary heroes who are helping people today, such as Nelson Mandela. This link between the past and the future is an important theme in the film as Damien tries to do what he thinks God wants with the money.

The Beatitudes and Social Action

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in The Cost of Discipleship (1937) that the Beatitudes (Mt 5: 3-12) only make sense when considered as a response to the call to follow Christ. In Millions, Damien seems to have an innate sense of the call by God to help the poor. He believes that the appearance of the money is a miracle to help the poor, not to squander. “Are you poor?” he asks people over and over and gives them money for food and necessities. Of course, a lot of the humor in the film comes from Damien’s innocent lack of awareness of adult double-speak, but he doesn’t care. He only wants to help others.

It is in the realm of the spiritual that Damien tries to make sense of his mother’s death and the seeming miraculous appearance of the money – delivered directly to him. He can only understand these events when he connects them to realities that only he can see and we can imagine.

Millions is a film about childhood, family, the commandments and beatitudes, social awareness, character, holiness, loss, grief, and belief in life after death, as God has promised.

The dominant biblical and sacramental sign in the film is of water, the joyous source of life. Millions is clearly drawing our attention to the need for clean water for the world’s poorest people today by showcasing an organization: Water Aid ( This is a new take on product placement, one that can influence people positively – to think locally and act globally to promote ecology for the benefit of the human family.

In addition to the Beatitudes there is another Gospel passage that Millions evokes to bring us along in our Lenten journey:

In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. John 14:12

Bride and Prejudice

Bride and Prejudice is the third film written and directed by Gurinder Chadha (who was born in Kenya and grew up in London) that I have seen and thoroughly enjoyed. The others are What’s Cooking? (2000) about ethnically and culturally diverse families in Los Angeles who celebrate the challenges of Thanksgiving and Bend It Like Beckham (2002) about a teen daughter of Indian Sikh’s living in the U.K. who defies her parents to play soccer. All three films explore the tension between growing up, culture, tradition, and the modern world – and celebrate the joy of living at the same time.


Bride and Prejudice is a very original, colorful, funny and entertaining Bollywood disco-musical that takes place in contemporary India (UK and USA) and is based on Jane Austen’s novel (1775-1817) “Pride and Prejudice.”


Aishwarya Rai, Bollywood’s Julia Roberts, plays Lalita, the second daughter of gentrified farmers, Mr. and Mrs. Bakshi (Nadira Babbar and Anupam Kher), whose fortune has seen better days. They live to see their four daughters marry well so they can live well, too.


British visitor Balraj Bingly (Naveen Andrews of Lost) arrives in town one day for a friend’s wedding along with his sister and an American businessman, Will Darcy (Martin Henderson). Balraj is immediately attracted to the oldest sister, Jaya (Namrata Shirodkar) but Will and Lalita develop a just-as-immediate dislike for one another. When they travel together to check out a hotel location in Goa for Will’s company, Johnny Wickham, an old acquaintance of Will’s shows up to complicate matters, especially later on with Lucky (Peeya Rai Chowdhary), the third daughter.


When they all return to the Bakshi home, the nerdy but rich Mr. Kholi (Nitin Chandra Ganatra) shows up from Los Angeles. He is enthusiastically looking for a wife, much to the delight of the terminally optimistic Mrs. Bakshi.


If you have seen the seven or eight film or TV versions of Pride and Prejudice (with another one on the way), you’ll know the story. This interpretation is not only about family but community-centered which distinguishes it from its western incarnations.The charm of Bride and Prejudice is the characters, the setting, the music and dancing. And if you liked Mira Nair’s 2001 Monsoon Wedding, you’re sure to enjoy this film, as well, though it is a different genre. Some of the Indian actors in Bride and Prejudice may be new to U.S. audiences, and it’s a real pleasure to meet them because they are very talented.


And so Jane Austen’s romantic legacy lives on.


One is proud (Darcy), one is prejudiced (Lalita) and for the romance to work, each must give up some pride and some prejudice to permit humility and tolerance to flourish and create a meaningful, and hopefully, lasting relationship.

The Pacifier

Navy S.E.A.L. Shane Wolf (Vin Diesel) is in charge of a snatch and extract mission: he is assigned to bring Professor Howard Plummer (Tate Donovan), who has been kidnapped because of the military secret he has developed, to safety. Just when they are about to board a helicopter after his rescue, Plummer stops to call his wife and five children. Shane turns his back, the enemy attacks; Shane is shot and the professor is killed.


After Shane recovers, he is assigned to guard the five Plummer children while Mrs. Plummer (Faith Ford) accompanies Shane’s commanding officer to Switzerland to retrieve the contents of a safety deposit box. Shane accepts the mission to guard the children mostly because he is ashamed of losing a man; what he gets is dirty diapers, kids who can’t handle their grief (one is Brittany Snow of NBC’s America Dreams), a little girl’s crush, a pet duck and people who want to get Plummer’s secret program. And don’t forget a hint of romance between Shane and the school principal Claire Fletcher (Lauren Graham.)


On a comedy scale, “Man of the House” was way funnier. To be fair, “The Pacifier” seems, at first look, aimed at a younger audience; it is, after all, from Disney.  On another level, I think it is saying a lot more to thoughtful viewers. It handled the challenge of domesticating a Navy S.E.A.L. and the militarizing of five kids pretty well. Where have we heard this story before? Hmm. Plummer. A modern American version of “The Sound of Music”?


If we look below the surface, it’s easy to see that Disney is giving the public a film that makes sense in a nation at war; it’s not called “The Pacifier” only because Shane can make a baby stop crying.  Upon reflection, I think the film makes for a very uncritical analogy of the past and present national and international threats to peace. First, the film recalls war with Serbia. Then when Shane has to break down Seth’s (Max Thieriot) bedroom door, the boy yells at Shane for using “shock and awe” tactics (the march to Baghdad). The culprits turn out to be in the employ of North Korea (a portent of things to come?)


It is interesting that the play that Seth gets a role in is “The Sound of Music”, that the writers took this national favorite as the basis for their story because “The Pacifier” besides being a comedy is also about the threat and reality of war. I don’t think the strongly implied analogy between the Von Trapp Family and the Nazi threat with the contemporary US state of war with Iraq and threats to US national and, by extension international security, hold up at all. I wish the writers would have been more thoughtful. The US war with Iraq is not the same at all as the one that framed “The Sound of Music.”


As media literacy specialists and culture theorists assert: at the end of the day, mainstream information and entertainment media reinforce the political and economic status quo. “The Pacifier” seems appealing, it has a few good laughs, it favors family, the characters grow and changem but at the end of the day, what’s it really saying to and about our national consciousness? I would hope that critical viewers will question the premise of this film.


What do you think? Who is Vin Diesel really pacifying? A baby? A bunch of kids? Or us?

Diary of a Mad Black Woman

Charles (Steve Harris), a successful Atlanta attorney attends an awards dinner in his honor with his wife Helen (Kimberly Elise). Hers is the voice-over as she writes in her diary about her childless marriage of 18 years. On the way home from the dinner, Charles practically pushes Helen out of the car in front of their huge mansion. Helen knows he has a mistress, but he will not admit it.


The next day, their anniversary, Helen takes lunch to Charles at the office and she meets the mistress face-to-face – with two children hanging on to her. Charles sends Helen home to find a U-Haul being loaded with her things. She runs upstairs to confront the maid and sees all new clothes in the closet. She thinks Charles is surprising her. Well, he is, but not in the way she thinks. That night, he literally throws her out of the house.


The driver of the truck offers to take her anywhere she wants to go; then she kicks him out of the truck and goes to her Aunt Madea’s (Tyler Perry) house in the ghetto. Helen’s rage has only begun.


Then the fun begins, but I didn’t expect it (because I had not seen the previews on TV.)


“Diary of a Mad Black Woman” starts out like a quality $14.00 paperback about triumph over tragedy that you just want to savor, and then it turns into a bawdy $7.99 pulp novel. It is the most schizophrenic movie I have ever seen. What’s worse, it works.


I have not seen writer/actor Tyler Perry’s other two films, so I cannot compare them with “Diary.” If you only look at the Madea part of the film, it’s like watching “Big Momma’s House.” The dramatic parts of the film are very fine and made me think of “Waiting to Exhale” without the explicit sexuality.  The ending was straight out of “An Officer and a Gentleman.” (And you can tell Madea is a man…)


“Diary” actually tries to be unabashedly moral and Christian; Helen’s new boyfriend offers her intimacy instead of sex, something we don’t often see in films. Though of course the complete moral universe of the film is still flawed, this is one good aspect that provides more material to talk about with family and friends. We are never going to get the perfect film because life is like that, too. Flawed. “Diary” also tells the story of many people who seem to be going through a 12-Step program for any number of reasons: rage, drug abuse, pride, etc.


“Diary” doesn’t know what it is, but in some strange way, the film is effective. Emotionally, the characters are all over the place. Cinema stories aren’t like that because they need an inner logic to keep them together, but life really is all over the map. So maybe Perry got it right.


But he could have made an incredible and memorable film if he had told Helen’s story without the comedy. The title alone is worth an award.

Man of the House

Texas Ranger Roland Sharp (Tommy Lee Jones) and his partner are trying to track down a witness who can testify against a drug lord. They visit the ex-con Reverend Percy Stevens (Cedric the Entertainer) at his church because he was in jail with the witness. He denies being in touch with his former cell-mate and tries to run just when the witness calls the Reverend on his cell phone. The Reverend hides the phone up the behind of a cow, and Roland Sharp gets to extract it; this does not do a lot for his somber personality.


When five University of Texas cheerleaders see the drug lord murder a witness, three Texas Rangers, headed by Ranger Sharp, are ordered to protect them until they can testify. So Roland moves in with the girls, and the other two agents set up surveillance in a skuzzy and weedy frat house next door.


The FBI wants in on the case and one agent will do all he can to find Sharp’s protected witnesses.


Sharp is by turn security guard, baby-sitter, surrogate-father, Shakespeare tutor, and shopper of all things feminine for the young ladies of the house.  He goes to class with one of the girls and he and the professor (Anne Archer) make an immediate connection. But Sharp has intimacy issues; in fact, he is barely able to communicate with his 17 year-old daughter.


This pretty much sets the scene for a pretty funny movie. At first the girls seem to be air-heads but little by little we get to know them and they are pretty smart, kind and generous. And Sharp is pretty sharp, too. How he gets the girls to wear more clothes around the house is extreme and not a little ingenious.


Longhorns and Aggieswill love the film, football becoming the new national pastime and symbolic ritual of patriotic Americans. Interesting how movies find a way to tell stories that strive to uplift the national psyche while entertaining us at the same time. By the end of the film Sharp and the girls learn new things about relationships and how everyone can be a hero today.


(I just saw “Diary of a Mad Black Woman” both films have casual references to marijuana.  Movies and TV “normalize” such behavior and kids are watching these shows; they need adults to talk about drugs in the context of the film. The humorous references to drugs, unfortunately, often make drug use seem inconsequential. “Diary” and “Man of the House” both deal with the more serious side of drug use as well, but overall the message may be ambiguous to the uncritical or very young viewer. Thus it is worthwhile to talk about these themes; parents are the anti-drug. I don’t want to overstate it, but how can we celebrate being American and be casual about drug use at the same time?)


Man of the House is very entertaining because it isn’t more than it sets out to be. There are five story writers and screenwriters and usually this is a recipe for disaster, but in this case, it works out fine. Enjoy (but remember to talk about the drug issues.)