Professor discusses Oscar-winning film
Gabrielle Gatdula, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, recalled watching an Oscar-winning documentary called “Born Into Brothels” during her senior year of high school. Three years later, she took a course at Rutgers with the director of the film, Ross Kauffman.
“Born Into Brothels” inspired her to become a documentary filmmaker, Gatdula said, so she considered it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be taught by Kauffman. The documentary examines the lives of children of prostitutes in the red light district of Kolkata, India.
“How often do you get to work with an Oscar winner?” she said.
Kauffman is a part-time lecturer at the Mason Gross School of the Arts. He teaches “Directing the Documentary,” a course that is a part of the Rutgers Center for Digital Filmmaking.
Kauffman broke his course down into three components, Gatdula said. The students studied vérité, impressionistic and stylized interviews, which are different ways to make documentaries.
“What he really wanted to impart to us was the different ways the director can bring a different vision to their film,” she said.
Kauffman said he incorporates readings and films into the course, along with the three assignments about the different types of documentaries.
The class covers the basics of theory, the history of documentary films, as well as different genres within documentaries, he said.
“My job as a filmmaker is to tell a great story with great characters,” he said. “That’s what I push my students to do, to really concentrate on finding that great story, finding those great characters and going forward and creating a story around them.”
He is working with fellow director Kate Chevigny on a film called “E-Team,” which looks into the lives of three investigators who report on human rights atrocities being committed in the city.
He said in the process of filming “E-Team,” he was in Libya with two investigators when Tripoli, the capital city of Libya, fell to rebels. In Tripoli, he observed massacre sites, prisons and theprisoners abused within them.
Filming for the documentary extended to Syria, he said, where he and two investigators interviewed families whose relatives had been killed by airstrikes.
“What I try to do in my work is try to really bring a human side to the issues and to the situation,” he said. “All I want to do when I’m making films is connect with my character.”
Kauffman said filming for “Born Into Brothels” was one particular opportunity that allowed his experience to transcend the scope of the lens.
“The kids in Kolkata while we were spending time with them were like regular kids in a way. They had the capacity to have great fun. … And they loved playing with the cameras,” he said.
Despite glimpses of joy in Kolkata, there was a pervading sense of sadness, Kauffman said.
“One of the hardest things is seeing the lack of opportunity afforded to this group of children and their mothers,” he said. “So it was very difficult when the mothers said ‘can you get my child into a school, can you take my child away from here?’”
Since the movie aired publicly in 2004, Kauffman’s executive producer has been collecting funds to build a home for the children of Kolkata, Kauffman said. The home is breaking ground in the city this year.
“I’ve come to regard him as a mentor figure,” Gatdula said. “I still talk to him sometimes, I still come in to see him and I get his advice. He’s such an approachable person.”
She said Kauffman is refreshingly modest and personable.
“He made sure to remember our names on the first day,” Gatdula said. “I remember that he took pictures of all of our faces with his iPhone and wrote our names underneath them so that he could make sure he knew our names the next day.”
During the semester, he was always open for office hours, she said, and encouraged active use of email and Skype. Although she took the class during the spring semester of 2013, Gatdula still remains in contact with him.
“I actually talked to him on Skype last Friday,” she said.
Winning an Oscar is only a small part of his experience filming “Born Into Brothels,” he said.
“While the [Oscar] was incredible to win, it was the experience of making “Born Into Brothels — getting on a plane to go to Kolkata and especially getting to know the kids,” he said.
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