Born Into Brothels: The Expository Mode and Its Ethical Implications

Bill Nichols, author of Introduction to Documentary, defines a documentary made in the expository mode as:

1.) An alternative to fiction/avant-garde.

2.) Treats knowledge as disembodied or abstract ideas, concepts, or perspectives.

3.) Time and space are discontinuous. Uses images from many different times and places to illustrate a perspective or argument.

4.) Ethical concerns include: Represent others fairly and avoid making people into helpless victims.

5.) A voice characterized by classic oration in pursuit of the truth and seeking to inform and move an audience.

6.) Assembles fragments of the historical world into a more rhetorical frame, rather than an aesthetic one or a poetic one.

While Nichols differentiates the expository-mode documentary from a fictional film, as noted in class, Born Into Brothels (Zara Briski, 2004) retains a story-telling style, even utilizing the structural backbone of a fictional narrative to maintain cohesion; Briski’s goal, to send children from the red light district of Calcutta to boarding school, mirrors fiction’s basic driving force: ‘Someone wants something and is having a hard time getting it.’

However, the very nature of Briski’s goal clearly implies a rhetorical argument: That the children of the red light district need saving, and that the best way to help them is to send them away to boarding schools. While there is a certain linearity to the goal itself (We find out at the end of the film which of the children continued their education and which did not), the images themselves are discontinuous, “assembled,” as Nichols says, around Zara Briski’s perspective. Her camera reveals poor children lacking purpose and direction in their lives, trapped in the brothels and destined for the ‘industries’ of prostitution and drug-dealing.

These images are unified by Briski’s frequent use of voice-over and on-camera conversations, emphasizing her genuine belief that she is under the moral imperative to better the children’s lives by giving them an education. In this sense, Briski’s oration pursues a concept or truth disembodied from the world of the film; no one in the red light district and nothing inherent in it indisputably confirm that Briski’s solution is the correct one: In fact, many of the children’s parents and grandparents question the importance or necessity of sending the children off on their own, preventing them from helping around the house or immediately earning a living. Thus this solution, this “truth” Briski seeks to delineate in her film may be more subjective than she realizes, and it is here that the ethical implications of the expository mode are worth exploring.

Nichols suggests that an expository documentary may tend to represent its subjects unfairly – both literally and figuratively through the lenses of the documentarian’s camera and his/her opinions – and that it may be guilty of victimization. The children in the brothels are clearly presented as victims of their situations, in desperate need of some change that will prevent them from following in the footsteps of their parents. This change, in Briski’s view, is a boarding school education. Briski sees a problem that needs to be solved, and while most people would agree that prostitution and drug-dealing are far from desirable lifestyles, especially when there is no viable alternative, the potential issue is that while Briski and the residents of the red light district may essentially recognize the same problem, this does not guarantee that they see the same solution.

Such differences in perspective feasibly set Briski up as a ‘white savior’ figure, which is problematic given western society’s history of imposing its beliefs and traditions upon other cultures. While one may counter that it is impossible for the ignorant or uneducated to know what is best for them (and I personally would rather risk doing something if I could to help rather than turning a blind eye), it is important for documentarians to recognize that people’s experiences are an education in its own right, and that such experiences may lead to differing definitions of solutions and success – a truly abstract concept that no one person or society – ‘educated’ in the Western sense or not – is capable of single-handedly deciding.

Works Cited:

Nichols, Bill. “How Can We Differentiate Among Documentary Models and Modes? What Are the Poetic, Expository, and Reflexive Modes?” Introduction to Documentary, 3rd ed., Indiana University Press, 2017, pp. 108–121.

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