Babies, Running Time: 79 Minutes, In Theaters: May 7, 2010
Babies! Eighty glorious minutes of babies. That is French filmmaker Thomas Balmès’ new documentary in a nutshell. It is actually eighty glorious minutes of four babies, as Balmès and his camera crew follow Ponijao, from Opuwo, Namibia; Bayarjargal, from Bayanchanmani, Mongolia; Mari, from Tokyo; and Hattie, from San Francisco, for the first year of their lives, from first breaths to first steps.
Balmès believes that babies, like good bourbon, are best served neat. After each infant is introduced to the audience in a caption that gives his or her name and location, the film has no other captions, no voice-over narration, and no interviews with parents or experts. The only accompaniment to the images and sounds captured by the filmmakers is Bruno Culais’ lighthearted score. The movie depends on (and simultaneously reminds viewers of) the fact that babies are delightful, adorable, oh so lovable, and, of course, funny. And the babies do not disappoint. There are beautiful shots of wrinkly newborn feet, first smiles of recognition, wide-eyed wonder on encountering a pet cat (or rooster) for the first time, and baby mouths voicing cackles of surprise and delight.
The film moves back and forth among the four babies to highlight the similarities and differences in their experiences. In one sequence the film cuts back and forth between Bayar, sitting alone in a tent, tethered to a bedpost, working assiduously to grasp a roll of toilet paper just out of his reach, and Mari, sitting alone in her playroom, trying to stack rings on a pole. Bayar squeals with delight as he finally gets his hands on (and teeth into) the toilet paper. Mari wails with frustration and collapses to the ground in a heap of utter despair when her hand refuses to do just what she wants it to. The laid-back parenting style of Ponijao’s mother, who often leaves the little girl in the custody of one of her eight siblings and laughingly watches as Ponijao and a dog swap spit, is contrasted with that of Hattie’s parents, who are shown reading a book called Becoming the Parent You Wanted to Be.
With no commentary, Balmès manages to convey his wry amusement with Hattie’s thoroughly San Franatic parents. After Hattie whacks her mother across the face, her mom says (softly, and with a big smile), “Hattie!” She then pulls a picture book called No Hitting from a bookshelf and asks her daughter, in the same sweet tone, “Remember this one?” In another scene, Hattie makes a break for the exit at a baby yoga class while her father sits cross-legged in a circle with other parents, chanting “The earth is our mother.”
Much of the film is shot at the babies’ eye level (often, parents are cut off at the knee or the neck) to show how the babies experience their surroundings. In one segment the camera follows Mari at stroller level as she is wheeled through a toy store. Her head swivels constantly as she tries to take in all the colorfully packaged toys. In another segment we see Hattie in the shower with her father, her eyes the size of saucers, enthralled by the showerhead. The overall effect is to illustrate just how much babies notice that the rest of us miss. Mr. Balmès also seems to favor shots in which the babies are alone or at least unobserved. At one point he discovers Hattie sitting in a swing. As her mother stands at a sink with her back to the baby, Hattie crouches and springs up. With arms and legs extended, she looks like a five-pointed star bouncing up and down. The effect, once again, is to emphasize how much we adults miss. A year, really, is such a short time. Before we know it, all four babies are taking their first triumphant steps, and the credits are rolling.
As much as I enjoyed the film (and laughed and “a-w-w-w-ed” with the rest of the audience), I do wonder what it says about us that we now go to the movies to experience babies. Do fewer people today have the daily interactions with babies that people had in previous generations? This seems possible; as people live more insular lives and move away from their families, they are less likely to know a baby if they do not have one of their own. Or is this an indication, perhaps, of how much we depend on technology to mediate and classify and generally experience our human experiences? (Many of us, for example, enjoy an evening out by looking at pictures we have just taken of that evening out.)
But, as I reflected on these questions, Bayar crawled into the cow pasture, and Ponijao started to dance on her unsteady, chubby legs as her mother clapped and sang, and, once again, I was utterly entranced by beautiful Babies.