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Babies! A Film Review
The French filmmaker Thomas Balmes has produced the cutest documentary ever: Babies. Prepare for the oohs, aahs, giggles, and maybe even an occasional gurgle from the audience; this feature is precious and just about perfect. Babies follows the first year or so of four newborns, Mari from Tokyo, Japan; Hattie from San Francisco, California; Bayar from Bayanchandmandi, Mongolia; and Ponijao from Opuwo, Namibia. While the two city babies in Japan and the USA grow into the toddler stage in environments that are extremely different from Bayar?s and Ponijao?s rural homes, the camera invites the active viewer to get this one truth: The species, we humans, are the same, regardless of national origin, income, or formal educational level. Whether our first toys were made of plastic from the store or of stone and wood and, sometimes, feather and fur from outside our front door, we come into this world, adjust to it, learn to stretch, grasp, and walk all over our own little plot of it, just the same.
The camera in this film is objective and focused. Whether the angle is wide or tight, the subject of each frame is a newborn, often the baby?s face, responding to stimuli all around. The world is big, but few adults stoop and linger to adequately begin to understand the intense wonder, joy, pain, or frustration in a baby?s nonverbal communication a s/he begins to engage it. The camera in Babies does capture this growing relationship each child has with the world.
Featuring the children, and not the adults caring for them, leaves little room for judgment or criticism of the different lifestyles depicted. It doesn?t matter that Hattie sits in a backyard hot tub with her mother and Ponijao sits in a clear water stream with her sibling. The experience with water connects these babies, and all of us, to the universal life force covering most of the planet.
From the opening shot of Ponijao?s mother?s full belly, the camera loves these children before they?re even born. A rural Namibian, she rubs her breasts and pregnant stomach with henna matter-of-factly, seemingly preparing for childbirth. She is Madonna, Eve, Life in flesh and the feminine force of eternal power. Likewise, the hair on Mari?s mother?s face frames delicate beauty, clearly in awe of the tiny life she has produced, yet focused, determined, and sure. But these women are not goddesses; they are moms.
While the film never loses the narrative thread and remains focused on each baby, it does include parents in relationship to the child. When Hattie bounces in a seat attached to the top of the doorframe leading to the kitchen, her mother cooks behind her, secure that the baby is safe and active while she completes one daily chore. When Bayar is wrapped in the tightest swaddle ever and, later, when he is crawling, tied to a bedpost, we see his mother in the field, trying to milk a wandering cow whose own calf bleats nearby.
A woman in the audience where I watched the film gasped when her friend whispered, ?He?s tied up? and she saw the long cloth attached to Bayar in this scene. Life in rural Mongolia is hard, and Bayar?s mother lives in relative isolation with her husband, her older son, and new baby Bayar. Babies neither condemns nor condones either parent?s method of child restraint. Both moms are working, and both need to secure their crawling children in order to complete the tasks of the day. In this film, the long straps attached to a San Francisco doorframe are no different from a long cloth attached to a bedpost in Bayanchandmandi. Likewise, Ponijao?s exploration of the stones littering her Namibian village is akin to Mari?s exploration of the DVDs and other supplies littering her father?s home office in Japan.
If anything, there is much for Western audiences to admire in the film?s two rural settings. Ponijao?s mother lives in community. She is never without another adult woman and several children to aid her in child-rearing. Laughter and talk fill the space where Ponijao grows. Strapped to her mother?s back when she calls out into the night, Ponijao experiences a pulse and rhythm and intimacy with her entire community.
In all four settings, these different babies are beautiful, growing in families that lovingly care for them all the same. While Mari rocks in a swing positioned in front of her apartment?s panoramic windows, the lights of the city flash and form a halo of light that casts little Mari in silhouette as she sleeps alone. When Hattie attends playgroup in San Francisco, the teacher leads the caregivers in a song about Earth. In Mongolia, Bayar is in the earth, sometimes, like Ponijao, covered in it, delighting in the natural world.
The purple cloth that drapes Hattie and mother as they drowse together, both still feeling post-labor exhaustion and bonding in the warmth of snuggle and touch, symbolizes the majesty of innocent life pulsing and fresh from the world of the womb. Babies is not overly-sentimental, yet the film is still magical, because birth is a blessing, each baby a miracle, and we are one people, no matter where and how we live, when we remember and marvel at the fact that this love we all feel for babies is true.
Eisa Nefertari Ulen is a mommy and a wife who lives with her family in Brooklyn. She is grateful to her husband for giving her a baby-free afternoon to enjoy Babies with other slightly exhausted moms.