Everyone should see Babies. Even people who have cats instead of children should see Babies. There are a number of cats in this movie, and some feline moments that must be seen to be believed, especially for cat lovers.
Directed by documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmès, who lives in Paris with his wife and three children, Babies is pro-life in the best possible sense: It is a celebration of new life, of love, of family, of the wonder of the world.
It is not a Hallmark card. Balmès daringly opens with a startling, almost nerve-racking extended shot of a quarrel between two African babies that involves crying, biting and slapping. It is a dispute over playthings. There is almost nothing to play with in the Namib desert, but there you go. The younger one gets violent first, but the moment she starts crying herself the older one is satisfied. Indifferent to her tears, he returns to his occupation, which involves grinding two rocks together. He doesn’t want the disputed item at the moment, he just doesn’t want her to have it.
Babies takes us to four corners of the world — from darkest San Francisco to the desert steppes of Mongolia, where nomadic shepherds dwell in yurts; from Tokyo, Japan to the desert of Namibia where stone-age life goes on — into four households welcoming four babies with love and joy.
This reflects a creative choice by the director: All babies are like these babies, but not all families are like these families. Not every child is loved, but every child needs and deserves love. “Happy families are all alike,” wrote Tolstoy in Anna Karenina; “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” How alike are the four households in this movie? About as different as happy families can be.
Hattie in San Francisco is an only child, as is Mari in Tokyo, though her grandparents seem to figure notably in her life. Bayar in Mongolia has an older brother, and Ponijao in Namibia is surrounded by siblings, including a grown woman with a baby (the big-brother figure from that opening shot is actually Ponijao’s nephew).
Hattie leans on her father’s bare chest, eyes and mouth wide with delight at the stream of water from the showerhead. Bayar bathes in a metal tub in the doorway of the yurt, and is unfazed when a goat cranes its neck through the doorway to gulp water from the tub. Ponijao might never bathe in water: Her mother washes her baby and herself with a red ochre compound mixed from clay and broken rocks; she also licks dust and sand from the baby’s eyes and spits it out.
Balmès records such quotidian moments of human and ethnographic interest with subtle artistry. His camera sits low, offering a baby’s-eye view of the world. Adult bodies loom large, and heads are often offscreen, creating compositions of anonymous universality. There is a wonderful shot of Ponijao’s mother at work framed by the body and legs of a large dog; off in the corner of the shot, the dog and the baby curiously lick one another’s tongues.
The low-angle perspectives take full advantage of the wide-open landscapes and distant horizons of the desert locations, filling the screen with miles of sky. I love a shot of Bayar standing in a stroller under a magnificent evening sky — and the unexpected punchline that brings us with a jolt back to earth.
Some of my favorite documentaries, as regular readers may know, immerse us in the world of their choosing without voiceover narration or any other imposition. Babies is like that. Other than establishing the names of the babies and their locations, there are no subtitles or other narrative intrusion. We understand no more of what Mari’s parents say than Mari herself would — and we don’t need to. Sometimes watching Hattie’s story I wished I didn’t understand English. That would be the best way to watch Babies: not knowing any of the languages.
Babies are funny, and there is a lot of humor in Babies. Sometimes you smile and wince at the same time. Possibly the most memorable sequence intercuts between Mari and Bayar, as Mari struggles to make some blocks do something she knows they’re supposed to do; when she can’t, her frustration and anguish know no bounds. Then there’s Bayar almost chortling with all the glee of a baby getting into something he suspects he’s not meant to have. In a parental trick viewers may remember from The Story of the Weeping Camel, he has been left tethered to the yurt’s support column, but on this occasion the cord wasn’t quite short enough.
Bayar’s relationship with his older brother Degi, who’s about three, is a cause of more wincing, as when Degi flails at his brother with a cloth and even experiments with exiling him from the household when the parents aren’t watching. On at least one occasion it’s a parent who gets smacked — and the mother’s gently didactic response might occasion as much wincing as anything else. Then there’s Hattie’s entirely understandable escape attempt from her music program during a dippy New-Age ditty about Mother Earth taking care of us.
Western parents with their hygiene and safety consciousness may find the rough-and-tumble of third-world parenting either unsettling or comforting. In California, Hattie’s mother parses the ambiguous relationship between sleeping position and SIDS; in Africa, Ponijao finds a rock in the dust and tries to eat it. Then there’s Bayar’s run-in with a cow. Many parents find that they relax a little after the first couple of kids; watching Babies could help, too.
Other cultural differences are worth pondering from different points of view. The urban babies are quickly weaned to bottles; the African babies are nursed well into toddlerhood. The simplicity of the Mongol and Himba peoples may raise questions, too, about all the paraphernalia that expectant parents are taught to consider necessary. Is it really necessary to register for travel systems, wipe warmers and a Diaper Genie?
Babies is rated PG for “cultural and maternal nudity throughout.” In other words, it is about families made up of people who have bodies. If your children have bodies, and are aware that other people do too, I see no real reason they can’t see this movie.
When 101 Dalmatians came out, everybody wanted a Dalmatian. After Finding Nemo, families headed to the pet shop in search of clown fish. Here is a movie that will leave viewers with babies on the brain. Babies opens on Mother’s Day weekend. I predict new arrivals starting around February 2011.
A charming featurette documenting Balmés’ return visits to the families three years later to show them the film and a two-minute short on a baby photo contest are the only extras. Why so stingy? Balmés shot lots of additional footage that should have been mined for the DVD. Still a must have.
Opening on Mother’s Day weekend, French director Thomas Balmès’ Babies documents the first year in the life of four babies from four different corners of the world: Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo. Balmès, who lives in Paris with his wife and three children, discussed his film over the phone with me.
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We went to see Babies with another family from our church … everyone loved it. This is the best movie now playing (as far as I know … not that I’ve seen everything in theatres, but from what I’ve read I’m not aware of anything now playing likely to displace Babies in my personal estimation). There is no good reason why Babies shouldn’t be bigger than March of the Penguins.
One question about your review. You make a point of saying that “you see no real reason” why children shouldn’t see this film, in spite of the “cultural and maternal nudity throughout.” Some Catholic parents would certainly be uncomfortable exposing their children to the nudity of the Namibian culture. In particular, parents may be concerned about exposing adolescent boys to the bare-breasted Himba mothers. From what you’ve written elsewhere, I know you agree that adolescent boys can be particularly at-risk in this regard. Any further thoughts?
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