Weekend Review: Babies, Dir. by Thomas Balmes

Babies
The sweet, slice-of-life documentary Babies (2010), directed by Thomas Balmes, explores the infant experience for four babies born into very different locations and cultures: San Francisco, Tokyo, rural Mongolia, and rural Namibia. From birth through their first birthdays, we see each baby as s/he hits developmental milestones, interacts with her/his environment, and is parented. There are no interviews, no voice over, and only minimal talking in general. The goal here is of observation, celebration of babies, and a recognition of how similar they all are regardless of culture.

At first, it may be jarring for some to see how different baby life appears to be in developing and developed nations. The Mongolian boy spends long stretches alone while his parents, presumably, are working, while the San Francisco girl's parents constantly interact with and entertain her. The Japanese girl spends much time indoors, surrounded by toys while the Namibian boy is constantly outside and entertains himself with nature. The filmmakers work, however, to help us to see the similarities and the qualities of our human experience that are universal. The take-away from these examples is not one of poverty vs. plenty, but a redefinition of what those words might mean. The Japanese family clearly has the means to buy more modern conveniences, but the Namibian baby is rich in other ways. His mother is a constant presence in his life and he has the entire natural world as his playground. The delight as he plays in a stream is absolutely heartwarming. Sequences of shots that cut from one baby to another show us the parallels. They all begin walking at about the same time, they all laugh and smile, they all have parents who clearly love them.

It might have been helpful, however, to give slightly more context for the cultures that are not the primary viewing audience. It's assumed that Japanese and American families are more likely to see this film and they are also more likely to identify with the experiences of those families onscreen. Because of this, I would have liked to have seen just slightly longer scenes of the Namibian and Mongolian babies. For example, the Namibian mother practices elimination communication, but the only evidence of this is a brief shot in which she holds the baby out while he eliminates, she wipes his bottom on her knee, and then cleans her knee off. It would have been helpful for an audience who by and large is unfamiliar with EC to also see the "communication" part of this process to show the beautiful synchronicity between mother and baby. That aside, this is a powerful film in its ability to encourage us to put away our cultural snobbery and to see that we are all so very similar.

5 comments:

  1. Oh, I´d love to read this - sounds very interesting! :-)

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  2. I saw this awhile back. It was so interesting to see how different all of the cultures are. If I am not mistake, I remember a scene where the Mongolian baby was leashed up inside the house!!

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  3. Very interesting indeed and without seeing it, I can wholeheartedly agree that there needs to be more context and elaboration for the snippets of baby life around the globe! EC would scare the wits out of most American viewers ;-)

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  4. i showed this film to the students in my anthropology of reproduction class last fall and we had a lot of fun talking about it. as an american mom, perhaps the most enjoyable thing for me was the clear reminder that, despite what the book-writing experts say, there are myriad ways to raise a happy and healthy child. meredith small's book _our babies, ourselves_ and judy deloache and alma gottlieb's _a world of babies: imagined childcare guides for seven societies_ also do a good job of this.

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  5. We watched this for a family movie night- my monkeys enjoyed it too although were kind of unable to get over the 'corn cob' method of poop removal by the African mom-

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