Born Into Brothels
Born Into Brothels

In his second inaugural address President Bush informed us, “The best hope for peace in our world is the expansion of freedom in all the world.” I couldn’t agree more, but two documentaries released this week suggest that our conception of freedom may not extend to every point on the globe. Inside Deep Throat, an HBO documentary produced by Ron Howard’s longtime collaborator Brian Grazer, chronicles the production and exhibition of the notorious adult film Deep Throat (1972) and the free-speech battle it sparked. In the HBO-Cinemax documentary Born Into Brothels, which was recently nominated for an Academy Award, photographer Zana Briski recruits eight children from Calcutta’s red-light district, arms them with cameras, and sends them home to record their lives. Both movies are essentially about the sex trade, but the latter is a stark reminder that freedom from hunger can be more precious than freedom of expression.

Shot for $25,000 by New Yorker Gerard Damiano, Deep Throat became the first porn movie to go mainstream, showing up in the pages of the New York Times and in Johnny Carson’s monologues—Ed McMahon was an early fan of the film, as was Bob Woodward. Middle-class moviegoers—including women—flocked to see its story about a woman (Linda Lovelace) whose doctor (Harry Reems) informs her that she has a clitoris in her throat and shows her how to use it for their mutual benefit. The accounting behind the production has always been murky, but it’s said to have grossed $600 million, which would make it the most profitable American movie ever. Its success was a beachhead for the adult-film industry, which became more open and professional in the 1970s. Deep Throat brought fellatio out of the closet and liberalized sexuality in general, but it also generated a Christian backlash that, as Alan Dershowitz points out in the film, has since matured into the modern evangelical movement.

Grazer, the producer of Apollo 13, 8 Mile, A Beautiful Mind, and Friday Night Lights, initiated Inside Deep Throat, pitching the idea to Sheila Nevins, head of documentary production at HBO, and hand selecting as directors the team of Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato (Party Monster, The Eyes of Tammy Faye). Grazer was fascinated by the cultural repercussions of Deep Throat, and in that regard Bailey and Barbato serve him well, collecting dozens of interviews with the filmmakers, the politicians who targeted the movie, and a pungent array of liberal commentators from the early 70s. The movie’s political thrust seems to have come from Grazer as well. “Brian was incredibly convincing when he talked about the freedoms that we have to express ourselves,” says Nevins. “He talked about how, in some ways, 1972 and 2005 aren’t so very different in terms of repressive forces. . . . So to do a documentary about the events that swirled around Deep Throat, we thought, would be both a good adventure and a timely story.”

The directors deserve credit simply for wrestling their subject onto the screen: like most porn movies back then, Deep Throat was bankrolled by organized crime (specifically the Colombo family in New York), and as Bailey reports, many people involved in the project were still reluctant to talk about it. Reems, now a born-again Christian, and Ron Wertheim, the movie’s production manager, both seem embarrassed by the experience, and even Damiano admits it’s a terrible movie. With all its publicity, Deep Throat became a target of federal prosecutors, who mounted a tortuous case against Reems for conspiracy to transport obscenity across state lines. The directors catch up with disgraced senator Charles Keating, who crusaded against the movie, and Memphis prosecutor Larry Parrish, who argued the case against Reems, and they’ve doggedly tracked down theater owners who exhibited the film, some of whom were charged by local authorities in a nationwide clampdown on adult movies.

One person missing from all this is Linda Lovelace, who died in April 2002 of injuries sustained in a car crash, and her absence, more than anything else, defines the documentary. A policeman’s daughter from Fort Lauderdale, Linda Boreman had a sad history with men: in 1969, at age 21, she fell in with a seedy character named Chuck Traynor, who pimped her, got her into stag films, and eventually landed her in Deep Throat. She and Traynor split up in 1974, and her career fizzled two years later. By the end of the decade she’d embraced feminism, become a born-again Christian, married a Long Island construction worker, and given birth to two children. In her book Ordeal she likened her relationship with Traynor to sexual slavery: “When you see the movie Deep Throat, you are watching me being raped,” she told the Toronto Sun in 1981. “It is a crime that movie is still showing; there was a gun to my head the entire time.” Her charges were widely disputed by people who had known her earlier, but she continued her campaign against smut and in 1986 testified before the Meese Commission on Pornography.

Ordeal was originally optioned by Imagine Entertainment as a possible property for Ron Howard, but Grazer, feeling that the focus was too narrow, decided instead to pursue Inside Deep Throat. As the smirking title might suggest, the movie is least prepared to process the feminist backlash against porn movies that followed their early-70s crossover—in a way the most interesting part of the story. Though Bailey and Barbato interview such figures as Camille Paglia, Helen Gurley Brown, Xaviera Hollander, and Erica Jong, most of them speak to the Deep Throat phenomenon, not the product itself. Two of Lovelace’s confidants—her sister Barbara Boreman and close friend Patsy Carroll—denounce Deep Throat on her behalf, but the free-speech agenda is so entrenched that the concept of pornography exploiting women seems to catch the directors flat-footed.

The political agenda of Born Into Brothels is evident from its very design. A native Londoner, Zana Briski studied documentary photography in New York City and in 1998 moved to Calcutta to shoot the red-light district. She acquired a room in a brothel and began to overcome the women’s suspicion, aided in part by their children’s enthusiasm toward her and her photography. On her next trip she brought back some point-and-shoot cameras and began to instruct eight children in how to take pictures; when their contact sheets began to come back she was impressed by their talent, and video footage of a photography class with the group convinced her boyfriend at the time, New York film editor Ross Kauffman, to come on board as codirector of a documentary. To some extent the story arc has been willed into being, as Briski organizes shows of the children’s work in New York and Calcutta and embarks on a strenuous campaign to get them into decent schools so they won’t be sucked into life “on the line,” as the hookers put it.

The film has received nearly two dozen festival awards (including two at the Chicago International Film Festival last year), and the National Board of Review named it best documentary of 2004. I don’t know if it merits an Oscar nomination in a year with so many strong contenders, but its sense of mission and inherent vitality make it a lot more impressive than the pop-culture navel-gazing of Inside Deep Throat. The children are not exactly reporters—they bring back no shattering images of sexual servitude—but their photography, like much children’s art, is fresh and sometimes startling. The drama lies in watching their artistic educations sharpen their sense of self, change the way they observe the world, and affect their painful, squalid environment.

The depth of that pain and squalor becomes evident as details about the children’s home lives emerge. Eleven-year-old Puja comes from three generations of prostitutes, and her fate as the fourth already seems to be decided. Fourteen-year-old Suchitra has lost her mother, and her grandmother wants to send her to Bombay to work the line. Twelve-year-old Avijit, the most talented of the bunch, is traumatized when his mother is murdered, set on fire by one of her johns. Ten-year-old Manik is a sweet-tempered child with an interest in kites, but his blunt observations reveal a weary wisdom—”People here live in chaos,” he remarks. Only a half-trusted figure in the brothel, Briski must lobby the children’s guardians for permission to escort them to a Calcutta exhibit of their work, and some of the parents resist her efforts to enroll the kids in boarding schools. Working tirelessly, she coordinates the admissions, tracking down identification documents and getting the children tested for HIV (they’re all negative).

In the end the dire poverty of Calcutta prevails when both Puja and Suchitra are pulled out of school and back into the brothels by their families. As Avijit observes, “Nobody here understands anything but money.” When I read the president’s inaugural address, I was stirred by the concept of a millennial mission to free the oppressed people of the world. But his policies seem to be based on the contradictory principle of getting our mitts on as much of the world’s wealth as possible, while there’s still time. As any hooker can tell you, we’re all slaves to the dollar.