Monday, September 13, 2010

Babies - directed by Thomas Balmes

Babies - directed by Thomas Balmes

As a documentary, Babies has a sweetly simple setup: follow 4 diverse newborns through the first year of their lives.

And the resulting movie seems superficial at first blush. After all, we all know babies. And only the weirdest and most persnickety of us isn't softened by the sight of a smiling cherub. It's built into our genes, and it's what helps keep the greeting card industry afloat.

But Babies accomplishes more than just a catalog of cuteness. By highlighting commonalities amidst such differing circumstances, Babies says more about the human condition than most editorials (or blogs). We are more alike than different, whether we spend our first years in the United States or Japan or Mongolia or Namibia.

In Babies, there's no narration. For a little over an hour, we just move from scene to scene, letting the images and the actions speak for themselves, starting with Ponijao in Namibia, who is raised in a dirt-floor hut amidst nearly prehistoric trappings. Instead of clothing, the tribe to which Ponijao belongs uses a smear of red clay to protect their skin. Overprotective American parents will shudder at these scenes, especially the one highlighting how Ponijao's mom deals with the absence of anything resembling a diaper.

But the opening scene in which Ponijao interacts with a sibling while playing is the very definition of universality. Ponijao needs no words, and we need not understand a syllable of the mother's off-screen exhortations to know exactly what's at play here.

Babies does get a bit graphic at times. Bayar, the Mongolian baby, is shown getting born. And, as would be natural in a documentary about newborns, there are boobs-a-plenty. Yet there is not a tinge of prurience in the whole movie. The bosoms in this flick are purely motherly.

Indeed, except for the babies, the rest of the cast seems curiously disembodied. The mothers get their screen time, but they are never the focus of a shot. Other adults appear as hands reaching in from off-screen or as off-stage voices, and there is one memorable shot of a nurse wrapping newborn Bayar into a tight bundle so his parents can carry him off on their motorcycle across the roadless steppes of Central Asia.

But Babies is about babies, pure and simple.

In watching Babies, I was struck by this fact: the babies in the ultra-modern environments of San Francisco and Tokyo were surrounded by toys and gadgets, while the babies in Mongolia and Namibia were surrounded by people and animals. Which is healthier? It's a reductive question, and it ignores a whole host of complicating contexts. But I honestly believe it's worth asking.

And that urban folklore about the danger of having housecats near your newborns? Well, an early scene with Mari in Tokyo puts that particular myth to rest, especially considering Japan's record of infant mortality puts the United States to shame.

Does Babies have an overt message? Sure it does, but to state it baldly would do a disservice to the experience that Balmes has created. And his choice to forego narration serves to make that message even stronger, allowing viewers to come to their own conclusions about what is shown. It's a master stroke, and I have to recommend this movie.

directed by Thomas Balmes 

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