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It is clear that French documentary-maker Thomas Balmès set out on his latest project with no political point to make, no ideology to espouse, and no axe of any kind to grind. Babies (rated PG, though with National Geographic-style nudity) follows the first year of four newborns-nothing more, nothing less.
Ponijao of Namibia, Bayar of Mongolia, Mari of Tokyo, and Hattie of San Francisco are born into wildly different environments with varying levels of wealth, but none seem to want for any necessity. Without indoor plumbing or, in Ponijao's case, even diapers, the Third World infants experience the same milestones as their First World counterparts: smiling, babbling, bathing, crawling.
The film mostly presents the world from the babies' point of view, eschewing narration or even subtitles for the non-English dialogue. This makes for rather slow development, but those who embrace the leisurely pace will find their patience amply rewarded.
Balmès' aim, as he describes it, was to film four babies as he would any other species in their natural habitat, without trying to impose a narrative on their lives. "I didn't want [the film] to be something about social differences, something with poor people and rich people," he said at a press conference, pointing out that even the African family is considered well off within its community. The brilliance of his approach is that the images speak for themselves and allow viewers to question any number of cultural assumptions, none of which have been plotted out for them.
For example, it will be impossible for most Americans to watch the sanitized, ordered lives of only children Mari and Hattie without finding them somewhat isolated and uninspired compared to the other babies' lives. For every developmental stage they are supposed to reach, Mari and Hattie's parents offer a product or playgroup specifically designed to address it. In contrast, Bayar crawls on grassy plains amongst cattle and goats while dodging the torture of his toddler brother, and Ponijao dips her face in a shallow stream and wrestles with her eight brothers and sisters.
Unintended irony features heavily, as when the San Francisco parents give Hattie African-inspired toys and sing "mother Earth will take care of us," then wipe her down with a lint brush. Juxtaposed with the Mongolian and Namibian mothers who expertly skin livestock while their children play nearby, such gestures toward multiculturalism look a wee bit ridiculous. And it says something about how riches allow us to obsess on identity that the American parents are the only ones who carry a whiff of sitcom character about them. (When Hattie runs screaming to the door to get away from a hippy-dippy singing group, many in the audience will want to go with her.)
On the other hand, the ease and prosperity enjoyed by the American and Japanese couples allow the fathers much greater roles in their children's lives. Ponijao and Bayar's fathers are barely on screen, so busy are they hunting and herding to provide for their families, whereas Hattie and Mari's dads have ample opportunity to cuddle them. Other audience members will bring different preoccupations to scenes of stunning exotic landscape, family interaction, and, yes, nearly unbearable adorability.
Something that has struck me in recent years is how de rigueur it has become for so-called intellectual elites to disdain or even attack the image of the chubby, gurgling baby. Articles from the New York Times to Elle magazine wherein writers (mostly women) complain about strollers on their sidewalks and describe procreation as a pollutant indicate a kind of baby backlash.
Partly this could be a reaction to the consumer forces that have turned baby care into one more fashion exhibition. But the ugly tone of some (one Boston Globe article suggested couples with more than two children are just showing off their wealth) suggests something else is going on. I wonder how these writers would react to this film, which unabashedly celebrates little lives entering the world and cheers their tiniest achievements. Words like "miracle" and "precious" are used so often in reference to infants, they've grown rather empty. With simplicity and grace, Babies fills them up again.