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Scenes from The University of Rhode Island

URI alumnus, collaborator win Academy Award in documentary category

Media Contact: Dave Lavallee, 401-874-5862

Film focuses on children born to Calcutta prostitutes


KINGSTON, R.I. -- February 28 -- A 1989 graduate of the University of Rhode Island and his collaborator were presented the 2005 Academy Award in the documentary film category.

Thirty-seven-year-old Ross Kauffman, a marketing major and former lacrosse player when he was on the Kingston Campus, and his collaborator Zana Briski, received the Oscar Sunday night for “Born Into Brothels,” a film featuring the children of prostitutes in the red light district of Calcutta, India. For Kauffman, a talented New York film editor and producer, and Briski, a world-renowned still photographer, it was their first foray into all aspects of cinematography, directing, producing and editing.

Briski lived in Calcutta and shot photos of the children of prostitutes in the mid-1990s.

“Zana lived in a small, dark room where many women and children shared their stories,” Kauffman said. “The kids always wanted to play with her camera, so she decided to buy 20 point-and-shoot cameras and teach them photography. It was her way of trying to help the children in a small way.”

Briski worked with them for about a year, and when she got the first contact sheets back, she was “blown away by the quality of the images,” Kauffman said.

“She kept writing to me telling me about the kids and she began talking about doing a short film with me,” said Kauffman.

Kauffman, who after years of stepping-stone jobs and long hours had established himself as a talent in the New York film industry, was initially unwilling to take the risk. “I was trying to get my camera work off the ground, and I just wasn’t ready. I knew such a project would take three or four years and we’d go broke.”

Back in New York City, the tenacious Briski wasn’t about to let up. She bought two video cameras, “one for me for my birthday, and she went off to Calcutta with her own camera and shot four videotapes,” Kauffman said.

“She sent some tapes back to me, and when I watched them, I was totally hooked in the first few minutes,” Kauffman said. “I was in Calcutta three weeks later.

“I was expecting a depressing story, but I saw kids so full of joy running around with their cameras, so proud to show their families what they had done. The kids kept us going through the hard times we faced in the four years of making the film.”

While the project consumed about four years, Kauffman said he was in Calcutta off and on for two years.

“We finished it the day before the 2004 Sundance Film Festival,” said Kauffman, who became interested in film during the summer between his junior and senior years at URI while he was waiting tables in Newport. An obscure second-hand book called The Elements of Film that he picked up in a Newport shop piqued his interest. It wasn’t long before he was reading everything he could on film and movies.

At Sundance, Kauffmann and Briski won the “Audience Award” and then they garnered more than 25 awards at other festivals, including “Best Documentary of the Year” by the National Board of Review, and “Best Documentary of the Year” by the Los Angeles Film Critics. They also received the “Distinguished Documentary Achievement Award” from the International Documentary Association and were chosen for the “Nextor Almendros Prize for Courage in Filmmaking” by Human Rights Watch 2004. The documentary will be shown on HBO-Cinemax in June and July.

While pleased with the Academy Award, Kauffman seems most satisfied with the personal connections he made. “My time with the kids in Calcutta is something I will never forget.”

He and Briski formed a foundation called Kids with Cameras (www.kids-with-cameras.org), and now whenever and wherever the film is shown, the children’s photography is exhibited and sold. So far, $100,000 has been raised for the foundation, which will go toward the youngsters’ education. Kauffman and Briski are also opening The School of Leadership and the Arts for the children.

He credits Briski with having the drive and the heart to tell a compelling story. “She followed her heart and roped me in. We never set out to produce an award-winning film; we just wanted to turn a camera on these incredible children and their work.

“Sure, receiving an Oscar is incredible, but much of this has already been incredible. People come out of this movie changed.”