Opening on Mother’s Day weekend, Babies, from French director Thomas Balmès, 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. (Babies is reviewed in the May 9 issue of the Register.)
Your film was pitched as “a wildlife film with babies.”
I don’t call it myself a wildlife film. That was the idea of the producer. To me, a wildlife documentary is in a way the opposite of what I try to do. A wildlife documentary just describes a way of living of animals. This film hopefully is more than documenting four cultures — it’s raising questions about who we are on the planet and what connects us with one another. It’s definitely not a demographic film trying to bring up the specificity of everybody — it’s much more trying to look at the universal effect of being a human being.
Do you come away from this project impressed with anything distinctively human, different from the subjects of wildlife films?
What I felt with my subjects is that, more than anything else, they are all needing love. As long as they are loved, they are really doing well. If they are surrounded by love, these four human beings are really doing well.
You’ve talked about casting your four actors in utero. Documenting their lives from the earliest moments, is it your feeling that babies’ personalities are there from birth, or even in the womb?
Definitely even in the womb, according to me.
You’ve made a movie celebrating babies at a time when people in many countries, particularly in Europe, aren’t having them. Do you think there’s ambivalence about babies today?
Yeah, on the one hand, you can read people saying that we are too many people on the planet, so we should stop having babies. (Laughs.) Hopefully, I’m not going to be sued for increasing the desire of parents to have more babies, which is sometimes what I’m reading: Mothers saying “I want to have a baby” after watching the trailer! It’s really more about what it means to be a human being on the planet.
You have three children yourself. That’s unusual in France.
Well, I think it’s changing. I don’t have the right numbers with me, but I think we [in France] are doing okay, compared to the other countries in Europe. I come from a family where one [child] is definitely kind of sad, and two is not enough. I always felt there should be more kids than parents in a family!
Living in Paris with three kids is definitely not the best environment … but I can’t absolutely imagine life [without kids]. I’m always very sad when I have very good friends who are telling me they don’t want to have any kids.
[Having children] is the most crucial process of decentralization of who you are from yourself, to try to find some distance with who you are. I’m not sure I’m expressing it that well in English. This is to me the biggest and most important thing a human being can go through. I’m really pro-parenting and having kids, definitely.
Excellent. By the way, we have six.
When I got my first daughter, I was definitely thinking, I’m going to have six! This was such a dream! And then the second one: Okay, let’s have another one. Now we have three; we have two boys who are very active. Unfortunately, living in Paris with three kids is already complicated enough. If I was living in the countryside and having another life, and maybe not traveling all over the world 400 days — like with this film, over two years I’ve been 400 days away — I might just do exactly like you!
As you watched these babies grow up in these very different circumstances, what stood out to you the most?
I guess the health and safety thing. I can see the reaction here, how people are concerned: Wow, this baby is in the middle of the cattle. Weren’t you afraid that it would be killed? Oh, he’s drinking this; he’s going to be sick.
Other than that, the big thing is how much in our society we are surrounded by so many tools and objects and all that — toys and goods and things. And [in contrast] how a boy or a girl in Mongolia could spend days with virtually nothing, playing with a toilet paper roll for a whole day, you know, and having the most fun with it. Or just being outside playing with a goat.
It makes you wonder if we are really not too much surrounded by toys and goods and things, which I’m not sure the baby needs that much. And maybe us just being with them, spending more time with them, and relying a little bit less on super activities — and just simple life could be enough.
How important are the social and economic differences to your film? Is it part of your point that families in less-developed societies can be just as happy and fulfilled as families in more materially wealthy societies?
Definitely that. But more than that, the economic and social aspect is a big concern to me. I wanted the four families to be totally rich — not rich, none of them is rich — but not to have any financial problems. So you are looking at the Himba families [in Namibia] thinking they might be poor, but according to the status of their tribe and the choice of life they have, they are very well-off — one of the biggest [herds] in the neighborhood. They are really doing well.
So what is wealth? What does it mean to be rich? Is it a money thing or is it a lifestyle thing? The film is much more challenging this wealth definition than just trying to compare some kind of wealth.
The [Mongol] family is exactly the same as the Himba — they have huge [herds]; they are really very happy, and they are absolutely in no need of anything. There is no way you would convince them of moving to Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia. So, definitely, the film does not offer a kind of social comparison according to one standard. [There is] a diversity of what it means to be happy with what you have, and different standards in different places.
There’s a lot of cuteness and humor in the film, but also some hostility and even violence in the way the toddlers treat the babies. For me, the most painful scene is the one where Bayar’s brother — not to give too much away — just basically exiles him from the house! I wanted to cry.
(Laughing.) This is something that I, as a parent, have been experiencing, not only once, but dozens of times.
I definitely wanted this in the film, because it is reality. I didn’t want the film to be only about how babies are cute and beautiful and sunny. There is also sometimes violence, definitely.
Can I ask about your religious background?
My parents were both Catholic. They baptized my sister and gave her a Catholic education. They didn’t give me any specific religious education. They told me to see the world, and see for yourself, and believe in what you want to believe. I feel very concerned about this issue, but in this film I’m trying to speak about it in a more philosophical point of view.