The Academy Award for best documentary was given Sunday to “Born Into Brothels,” a socially conscious story about the offspring of prostitutes in Calcutta’s red-light district that includes shots taken by the children themselves with still cameras.
“We thank the kids; they’re watching in Calcutta,” director Zana Briski said while accepting the award with co-director Ross Kauffman. It was the directorial debut for both.
The alternately despairing and hopeful “Brothels” is the rare documentary in which the filmmakers get involved in the lives of the subjects, as the directors worked to educate the children and keep them from following their mothers into sex work. Sometimes the directors experienced success; at other times, they met with frustration that demonstrated the culture’s rigidity.
The Oscar race had been considered a deadlock between the earnest “Born Into Brothels” and the irreverent “Super Size Me,” a comic and sometimes stomach-turning film about a man who eats nothing but McDonald’s food for a month to draw attention to the problems of obesity and poor nutrition.
Conspicuous by its absence was Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11,” a controversial film whose North American box-office gross was nearly $120 million, more than any of this year’s best picture nominees. Because Moore chose to lobby for a best film nomination, he had to remove his movie from documentary contention.
Documentaries have gained increased attention in recent years, and 2004 saw first-person films replacing drier journalistic efforts, and more digital cameras in the service of the stories.