Who Doesn't Like Babies?

Who Doesn't Like Babies?


How interested would you be in kicking back and watching a movie if I were to tell you that it:

A) is a documentary,
B) has no dialogue (and the scraps of spoken language that can be heard aren't subtitled),
C) is not narrated, and
D) will last for more than an hour ?

Are you making this face right now? (Photo credit: Martin Burns)

Some of you might already be hooked--and some of you might be feeling your 'fight-or-flight' instinct kicking in nice and strong. But before those of you who belong to this second group give in to the overwhelming desire to flee, take a deep breath and read on. It's possible that you may yet change your minds.

The four main subjects of this film are, in and of themselves, a pretty strong draw. Who are they? Their names are Ponijao, Mari, Hattie and Bayar, and they all have one thing in common--and this one thing, without any effort on their part, makes them pretty damn likeable right from the get-go. In fact, you would probably like them at first sight. Just watch one of them yawn and (if you're at all like me) you'll feel a big rush of warm-and-fuzzy affection.

It's not this guy. (Photo credit: EverbodysDracula)

Why? The answer is in the film's title--Babies. In amidst the sharply contrasting backdrops of Tokyo's sky-scrapers, Namibia's village huts, the sweeping landscape of Mongolia, and the familiarity of the American urban scene, we watch as four babies navigate the first year of their lives. Director Thomas Balmes brings us right into the intimacy of family life: Mari's mother, in Japan, stroking her big round belly before Mari is born; in her Namibian village, Ponijao's mother holding her tiny newborn daughter in her hands; Bayar lying swaddled in a crib next to his exhausted mother in her hospital bed in Mongolia; Hattie and her mother lying so peacefully together in bed in San Francisco, mother stroking sleeping baby's belly. From their beginnings, the camera rarely strays from the four main characters, and we watch as in their vastly different environments they each go through the things that all babies go through (that we have all gone through)--the process of figuring out our own bodies and abilities, and the way the world around us works.

And how could you not? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

An essential part of this film's beauty is its complete absorption in its subjects. The camera frame often stays focused directly on the baby's expressive face throughout a scene (for example, when Bayar's mother is angrily scolding him for making a mess, we don't see her, but we do see his uncomprehending eyes looking up at her, or when Hattie is meticulously peeling a banana in order to eat it, her dad--who is taking the peels she offers to him one by one--is just out of view). As viewers, while watching these four babies so closely, we come to share their perspective--and I found that the 'baby' way of understanding things sometimes made more sense than the 'adult' way did.

When Mari goes to the zoo for the first time and screams in terror when confronted with the close proximity of a gorilla and a tiger, I found myself thinking, 'Well, how reasonable of her. Why would she enjoy being within mauling distance of vicious predators?' When Hattie's mother brings her into the hot tub and Hattie is considerably freaked out, it suddenly seems clear that it should be disturbing to be dunked into overwhelmingly hot, loudly bubbling water.

Really now, who wouldn't scream? (Photo credit: GavinBell)

Now, even if you aren't the kind to be conquered by mere adorability--if the prospect of watching babies be babies for 75 minutes doesn't thrill you--the film's cultural aspects might still be sufficient bait to draw you in. In each of the four very different environments, Babies allows its viewers to witness the intimate details that constitute parenthood and early childhood within those cultures. There are touching moments of familiarity that transcend the geographical distances (the scenes of each of them crawling--that identical motion--across the ground in such different places; the way in which a loving parent coos to their baby). There are also moments of striking opposition. At one point in the film, the camera cuts between scenes of Hattie's father, in San Francisco, vacuuming the floor around her and then de-linting her, and Ponijao, the Namibian baby, sitting at her mother's feet, playing unimpeded in the sandy dirt, finding a bone, and then putting it into her mouth and sucking on it with curiosity.

This way of cutting between opposite approaches to parenthood (in this instance, the protective American model versus the much-less-so Namibian version) has the effect of redefining each, in relation to the other. Interestingly, I found that it made Hattie's father come across as the more extreme and bizarre parent in his behaviour--his North American concerns about maintaining sterile surroundings for his child appear odd and over-protective when compared with the complete lack of these worries in Ponijao's mother (especially since her baby seems just as happy and healthy as his does).

This, perhaps, is where Babies' most impressive quality lies: in its ability to take us as viewers and show us our own culture through entirely fresh eyes. When we see Bayar, in Mongolia, crawling between the legs of cows (with those big heavy hooves) and emerging completely unhurt and unworried, we are forced to wonder whether babies might be more resilient than we give them credit for in Western culture--that maybe we go too far, here, in our concerns over an infant's fragility and vulnerability.

Babies gives us a new point of view (Photo credit: starbooze)

Seeing the ways in which all four babies (especially Ponijao and Bayar, whose experiences in Namibia and Mongolia are less familiar to Canadian viewers) confront the world around them and venture happily into the unknown shows us the possibilities inherent in all of us, at the point where we are most elastic, adaptable and open. Watching each of them as they learn to babble, learn to crawl, and eventually learn to walk, we take part in their little sorrows and joys, and in the human universality of all of their defeats and triumphs. While watching Babies, it is as if we get to go back to being babies--to experience the beginning of life all over again, to see the world and everything in it as something fresh, strange and new.

Photo credit: SanShoot

So, even if you find the idea of a non-talking, un-narrated documentary to be somewhat daunting, keep in mind that this is not your run-of-the-mill documentary. It is an experience of four different countries and lifestyles, it is a warm basket full of warm-and-fuzzy baby moments, it is a hilarious look at the quirks and humour involved in human behaviour, and it is a new way of looking at the world and our own culture. So whether or not you are a person who loves babies, you still might love Babies.


nice post. was good to read

Wow, what a neat blog. I loved your narrating and will bookmark the article.

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