The dilemma in doing a feature-length documentary on babies is that they’re such damn cute, amusing, cuddly and remarkable new human creatures that any point a film intends to make about them can be easily lost.
Babies, which opened Toronto’s annual documentary film festival Hot Docs Thursday night, has enough fetching shots of newborns and infants to collect plenty of “ooo’s” and “aw’s.” But director Thomas Balmès’ debut film actually makes a statement about the many different and possible paths from birth to a happy first birthday, and they have nothing to do with modern medicine – or the lack of it – or the circumstances in which a child is born.
The film focuses on four newborns from very different parts of the world representing the full spectrum of wealth and privilege.
There is Ponijao, who lives with her family in an isolated corner of rural Namibia; Bayarjargal, who resides with his family on a desolate plateau of Mongolia; Mari, who lives with her family in the middle of overcrowded Tokyo; and Hattie, who resides with her parents in San Francisco. In telling the story spatially rather than sequentially, Balmès and editors Craig McKay and Reynald Bertrand deftly cut from one child to another at identical points in their new lives, showing the stark contrasts between societies and their approaches to child rearing, and demonstrating how most babies prosper in spite of the presence or lack of Western technology.
Ponijao is born in a mud hut where her mother licks her clean of after-birth and Hattie in a state-of-the-art hospital where she’s bathed antiseptically by nurses before being wired to every known monitoring device for the first day just in case. Bayarjargal comes into the world in a rudimentary hospital that seems to be a two week drive from anywhere and wrapped tightly in swaddling while Mari’s nurses in a sparkling Tokyo hospital give her immediately to her mother and father.
During the film, Hattie’s parents enrol her in “crawling classes” while it’s left to Ponijao’s mother and siblings to provide early life skill lessons. Mari’s grandparents become heavily involved in raising the child and Bayarjargal is tended to on a rug in the middle of his family’s basic farm house – and watched over by a rooster who wanders in occasionally to stand guard.
Balmès goes out of his way to avoid making judgements about what he sees, and the entire film is remarkably free of any hint of xenophobia. He neither pities the poor children nor exalts the wealthy. Or the other way around, either. Regardless of location, each child is filmed in the same lighting and style, avoiding subtle messages of “differences.” He simply allows his camera to run and his editors to weave it all together in a coherent, cogent and poignant yet happy story.
But along the way, Balmès prods the audience into asking themselves a serious question: Why are so many of us so smug about the supposed superiority of technology and individualism that dominates Western living and civilisation? Does it really have much to do with raising a child better than in other societies?
Even though Balmès says he simply wants viewers to “joyfully observe” – and the film can be enjoyed thoroughly at this level – in fact, Babies pointedly shows key differences between industrial and non-industrial, and Western and Eastern cultures, yet the outcomes are identical.
Balmès subtly demonstrates how different North Americans are from much of the rest of the world when it comes to growing an infant. Yes, babies have to be raised but there is no universal standard for doing so. Indeed, each culture prescribes its own “acceptable” form of child rearing. So, what is acceptable has the effect of both helping the child develop physiologically as well as to become enculturated – and, yes, this is a word – into their respective society.
From Hattie’s first moments of life in California, technology dominates: First wired to machines to track vital signs, then being rocked by her father sitting in a chair specially designed to replicate the motion of the womb. Meanwhile, in Namibia, Ponijao receives no less physical contact with her family but siblings and cousins cart her around, sometimes in their arms, sometimes over a shoulder, sometimes by laying her across their legs when squatting to grind corn meal.
In Mongolia, Bayarjargal is constantly being touched by family members but only when they pass by as they work; when he’s about six months old, he gets he gets hauled into the fields with older children as they care for the family’s livestock. And Mari is imprinted almost from day one with the value of the family unit to her survival and flourishing.
In the end, Babies isn’t just about babies. But by using very cute infants, Balmès shows that while different people do the same things differently, we are all identical anyway. It’s wonderful filmmaking, celebrating the life, humanity and similarity in all of us.
- Director and Cinematographer: Thomas Balmès
- Producers: Alain Chabat, Amandine Billot, Christine Rouxel
- Executive Producer: TBC Productions – Chez Wam
- Writer: Original Idea, Alain Chabat, Adapted by Thomas Balmès
- Editors: Craig McKay, ACE, Reynald Bertrand
- Composer: Bruno Coulais
- Run time: 79 minutes
Charley James and Lulu Demaine
Charley James is a regular contributor. Lulu Demaine is the pen name of a Toronto-based cultural anthropologist who earned two BA’s, a Master’s degree anthropology and has almost completed her PhD. She’s lived in both North America and Europe and now makes Toronto her home where she is a progressive observer of, and commentator on, social, sexual and gender mores and issues.They will be reviewing Hot Docs films for us.
The Progressive Curmudgeon