Everyone should see Babies. Even people who have cats instead of children should see Babies. There are a number of cats in the households seen here and some feline moments that must be seen to be believed, especially for cat lovers.
Directed by Thomas Balmès (read my interview with him in "Register Exclusives"), 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, love, family, and wonder of the world. Balmès’ stars were cast in utero, and even their sexes weren’t known. Umbert the Unborn would approve.
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 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 the cityscape of San Francisco to the desert steppes of Mongolia, where nomadic shepherds dwell in yurts; from Tokyo to the desert of Namibia — into four households that welcome 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 Leo 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.
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, 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 both of them 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 off-screen, 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 punch line that brings us back to earth with a jolt.
Some of my favorite documentaries, as regular readers may know, immerse us in the world of their choosing without voice-over or anything of the sort. Babies is like that. Other than establishing the names of the babies and their locations, there are no subtitles or other narrative intrusions. We understand no more of what Mari’s parents say than Mari herself would — and we don’t need to. Sometimes, while 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.
Western parents, with their hygiene and safety consciousness, may find the rough-and-tumble 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 also help.
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?
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 — I predict new arrivals starting around February 2011.
Register film critic Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic at DecentFilms.com.
Content advisory: Maternal and ethnographic nudity.