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Movie Review

A "wildlife film with human babies."

That's how French producer Alain Chabat pitched his idea for a documentary to director Thomas Balmès. And that's exactly the effect Chabat and Balmès created with their movie Babies, which persistently and intimately records the first year of life for four newborns: Ponijao, in northern Namibia; Bayar[jargal], in Mongolia; Mari, in Tokyo; Hattie, in San Francisco.

Devoid of voiceover commentary and even cultural context, Babies is purely observational, relying on a playful soundtrack to "narrate" each scene. Balmès was intentional in keeping dialogue peripheral—parents and other adults in the background speak only occasionally, and their native languages are not translated into subtitles. He told CBC News, "I wanted to give a baby point of view, just immerse you in a baby's world for 80 minutes."

And so we watch as each child achieves firsts such as nursing, sitting up, crawling, eating solid food and walking. We also look on as each baby gently bonds with his or her parents. And as the children mature and discover their unique surroundings, we get a glimpse of how cultures might subtly shape each child's personality.

Entering on Stage Right: Babies 1, 2, 3 and 4
The Japanese Mari, for example, is placed in day care and structured play classes when she's only a few months old. In one scene, she howls with other babies while attendants scramble to take care of them all. Later, in her parents' high-rise apartment building, we see her in a frantic, self-rocking crib that's silhouetted by the vivid Tokyo skyline. When she fails to properly line up stacking rings one day, she emotionally crumbles into an "impressive" temper tantrum. While editing may have something (a lot?) to do with the fact that she's the only baby shown to express such frustration, you can't help but wonder if she, even as an infant, feels the pressure of her culture to perform.

In contrast, the Namibian Ponijao and Mongolian Bayar—who are both shown to be bubbly babies—each has at least one sibling and are allowed seemingly carefree childhoods. They're given almost free rein as parents tend livestock or do household chores. Ponijao wears only a loincloth, drinks from a stream and examines a bone with her mouth. She also eats off the ground and plays with the family's pet dog, opening the animal's mouth and getting "kissed." Adventurous Bayar gets muddy, climbs over kid goats and stands precariously close to his parents' cattle. His little brother provides companionship, as well as gentle "torture" when their sibling rivalry kicks in.

Neither rural baby has left home or ever experienced the likes of Mari's well-ordered stroller brigade in Tokyo.

The American Hattie's life, too, seems highly organized but slightly sterile when compared to Bayar's happy-go-luckiness and Ponijao's strong family ties. For example, after vacuuming the carpet she's on, Hattie's father rubs her pajamas with a lint roller. By necessity, Ponijao's and Bayar's parents are far less concerned about dirt, let alone lint. And it's sociologically interesting that the family least connected to the rawness of the world that is the most visibly "eco-conscious." Hattie's parents also take her to yoga class and a chanting session, singing the praises of mother earth.

More Than Mere Mammals
On the Babies website, Chaput says of the children's cultural differences and familiarities, "The environments were very different, as well as the parents and of course the four babies. They all have their own strong personality, distinct from one another. But they all share one thing in common: the amazing ability to adapt to his or her environment." And adapt they do.

Chaput says his inspiration to share babies' resilience and growth was a "dream 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. … I felt we could show the commonalities as well as the differences among these babies."

Balmès records these heartwarming commonalities and differences with elegance. We see that whether these babies are sitting in the dirt or on hardwood flooring, each is loved. And we grow to appreciate their adventures, however small.

But beyond adventure, Balmès wants the film to remind people of how crucial parent/child relationships are. He says on the website, "Sometimes, with life happening, you can get a little lazy in developing a real relationship with your kids. … I hope Babies shows that no matter what their conditions are, wherever they live, these babies grow up happy as long as they are loved, and that this is universal."

For reasons that are uniquely human, those ideas separate this film from such nature documentaries as Earth, Oceans and March of the Penguins. As does homo sapien nudity. While capturing the beauty of the relationships between mothers and their children, Balmès also captures the nakedness that goes along with quite a lot of the intimate moments they share. We see explicit images of women nursing (with frequent full-breast exposure) giving birth (but not from a midwife's vantage), and cleaning their children after nature calls. The director's impartial, dispassionate camera records reality—public and private—as it is.

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