Babies: Four Infants in Different Parts of the World

The new documentary “Babies,” directed by award-winning filmmaker Thomas Balmès, is a sharply observed, highly visual anthropological exploration, without being in the least didactic or academic.
Based on an original idea by producer Alain Chabat, the feature follows four babies in different parts of the world, from their very birth to the phase where they take their initial steps.
 
In an audacious move for a documentary, Focus Features will release “Babies” on 500 screens next Friday, May 7, in time for Mother’s Day; on the same day, Sony Classics will release “Mother and Child.” (See Review).
 
The infants are Ponijao, who lives with her family near Opuwo, Namibia; Bayarjargal, who resides with his family in Mongolia, near Bayanchandmani; Mari, who lives with her family in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, who resides with her family in San Francisco.
 
Using a cross-cultural perspective, “Babies” aims to capture in a light, joyous manner the earliest stages of socialization by showing at once what’s unique about each society and its cultural practices, and also what’s universal about growing up and take the first steps toward being human.
 
Though admirably nonjudgmental, this observational docu is not particularly critical (in the positive sense of the term), and what’s missing from making it more poignant is some discussion or suggestion as to what extent the babies chosen are also representative of the larger culture in which he grows.
 
To achieve greater objectivity and open-mindedness, and to stress cultural relativism, helmer Balmes has decided not to include any voice-over narration or commentary, fearing these devices might taints the perception of the viewers. Accompanied with some music, the docu goes for a direct emotional experience, though avoids being “cute,” as could easily have been the case.
 
It will be interesting to see the response of viewers to the segments depicting child-rearing practices in their own country, when they are placed vis-à-vis those that prevail in the three other countries represented in the work
 
In the press notes, producer Chabta notes: “I dreamt of a movie theater audience that would applaud because a baby would stand on their own two feet. These tiny things are huge adventures for them–and we’ve all been through that, though of course most of us can’t remember. I felt we could show the commonalities as well as the differences among these babies. Ands indeed, this very simple act arrives as a rousing climax.
Before they began shooting in each country, the filmmakers rely on local people helping them in legal and practical matters of organization. Ultimately, the selection (the equivalent of a casting process in a fiction feature) depended on such variability as gaining access, and a frequent one at that, to the infant and his/her parents.
In Mongolia, for example, the team went to a hospital closer to the airport, and met with would-be mothers who expected to deliver around the date the shooting was to begin. After meeting about 50 families, two mothers were chosen for inspection, and then, after several weeks of shooting, the filming was limited to one of the two.
In contrast, there was no doubt that the Namibian family would be in the movie. As most of the Himba tribe lives in villages surrounded by each other, there was some concern about jealousy–favoring one family over others. Fortunately, the Himba family members were living on their own and also showed strong interest in the creative process. Ponijao in Namibia is the eighth of nine children in the family; we could all feel the love from her mother from the first day until the last day we filmed.
The method chosen might have influenced the end result of what’s shown on screen. Early on, the crew decided not to interfere in the babies’ development, and not to create and problems for the families. Which meant they went with people described by them as “happy and positive” about their child’s arrival.
Another issue is that of gender: There are more girls among the babies than boys. This was a result of interviewing pregnant mothers, who themselves didn’t know whether they would have boys or girls. (It has become more common in the U.S. and other Western countries for parents to seek knowledge early on about the gender of their would-be babies).
By and large, with the exception of the American culture, the producers went for exotic locales, such as Namibia and Mongolia. France, for example, the filmmakers’ home and thus an easy and natural choice, is excluded.
Most of the footage in the finished film was shot by Balmes, functioning as his own cinematographer. The principal shooting took over two years, or to be more exact, 400 days. Some local crews were used for extra shooting while Balmes was not there. The length process made the interviewees more comfortable and trusting about the camera and the sound equipment; they got used to being filmed. (The father of the American baby, Hattie, is himself a cameraman and did a little bit of filming of his own daughter).