Solvable Poverty? How Documentary Films Obscure the Needs of the Poor
The 2004 documentary Born Into Brothels spotlights the children of prostitutes in the red-light district of Calcutta, highlighting their rough paths and desires to escape the confines of their home lives in order to pursue something greater. The film won the Academy Award for Best Documentary feature, and while it does an important job at highlighting the struggles of communities that often go unrecognized, the film falls into several traps about why certain groups remain impoverished, and what they should be doing in order to fix that. These issues are not isolated to this film, however, appearing generally through filmic depictions of the poor and casting a shadow on what poorer communities are truly facing.
Through several close-up shots and pans towards dirt roads and people sleeping on the ground, the film documents at its core that this Indian society is unmodern, and that modernization is necessary. Modernization, a major poverty theory, links poverty with economic development. Societies begin as traditional and unproductive, eventually fostering high mass consumption. Poverty alleviation is a linear process that all countries will undergo in pursuit of an industrial modern state. Discrepancies exist between the rich and poor due to the poor being at earlier stages of the process. With proper policy and optimism, the poor can eliminate hindering values and pursue a path towards advancement.
Values deemed problematic are non-Western. The duality between traditional and progressive societies creates a basis for determining which traits oppose advancement. Theorists measure culture via the presence of achievement motivation and postmaterialist values. Countries emphasizing religious and familial obedience instead of determination and thrift are more disadvantaged. Countries fostering the former promote conformity to norms, discouraging self-expressive, entrepreneurial spirits needed to advance economically. Regions with individualist values are examples of behaviors needed to modernize.
By extension, modernization theory argues that poverty traps exist and prevent individuals from escaping poverty. Due to structural barriers present, an insertion of aid into countries would allow citizens to break from the ongoing cycle of poverty and progress upward. Also keeping individuals from escaping poverty is cultural complacency, heavily emphasized in this film and in many others. Most men are labelled as spending their money on drugs and alcohol. Not working, they either smoke or have intimate relations with prostitutes. Also, the children often say that one must accept life as filled with pain. Those in the district are either apathetic about their circumstances or are despondent about their lives improving. Change on the city’s part necessitates a shift in viewing what they can become; looking towards the West and seeing that change is possible is one way of combating poverty.
Backwards culture could also inhibit economic advancement. In the district, familial obedience is emphasized. Mothers were violent towards their children, physically and verbally assaulting them if they disobeyed. This also translated into how husbands treated wives, beating them for not following orders. This culture also seems to look down on things deemed to hinder prostitution. As it passes from generation to generation, parents are weary of sending their children to school, as it would eliminate a source of income. The film ends with many of the children either forcibly removed from school or barred from attending entirely, due to how deeply ingrained prostitution is within the local community. Again, theorists would argue that members of this society need to recognize how their current beliefs hinder development and look towards emulable models of success. Enforcing the importance of education and strong-willed independence would allow the Indians to work towards proven models of economic success, which suggests that an external push in capital or resources is necessary to develop career options beyond prostitution.
Quite clearly, modernization theory cannot be considered all-encompassing because of its ethnocentric premise. In the film, the documenter angers when others don’t act in the manner she deems necessary, implying her Western upbringing formulates her understanding of success. The theory dismisses cultures that differ from Western models, which represent deviations from what is presumably foolproof. External parties assume poorer regions want to modernize. Agents force aid into regions perceived to desire change when perhaps they know it would produce a disservice. Theorists place emphasis on why the rich became rich, ignoring the underlying causes of why the poor are poor, while simultaneously overlooking negative externalities that may arise given shifts towards Western models. If the district were to continue along the path toward mass consumption, they might experience more unsanitary living and working conditions, working against economic advancement by hurting the market and increasing premature mortality. A fervent understanding of the lived experiences of the poor would generate viable improvements in poverty’s removal.
This, again, cannot be seen as isolated to Born into Brothels. More broadly, the camera paints a rather narrow portrait about true impoverished lives, often through the lens of an outsider. Documentaries, and even photographs of the poor taken from individuals outside that culture, however implicitly, construct a narrative about what the right way to live is and how communities should navigate change in order be like them. Communities like the children in Calcutta’s brothels need to be given the ability to construct their own narratives about the kinds of circumstances they face, because if not, we risk preserving toxic ideologies about vulnerable communities. Documentary film can, and has, demonstrated valiant efforts to make these issues visible. However, these issues require more focused attention and communication in order to more fruitfully consider the roots of existing problems..
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