My wife, Alisa, and I just saw the film Babies, a documentary by French filmmaker Thomas Balmès that follows the first year in the life of four babies born into four very different homes: a mud hut in a Namibian village, a yurt in the Mongolian steppes, a skyscraper in Tokyo, and a townhouse in San Francisco. It’s unlike any other movie you’ve seen. There is no voice over, no subtitles, and almost no dialogue, and when there is dialogue it’s more often than not in another language. It’s 80 minutes of quietly watching four adorable little babies explore four very different worlds.
The first things that wallop you as a dutiful American parent are the third-world safety hazards: The Mongolian baby and his mother drive away from the hospital – mother, father, baby, and brother all squeezed onto one motorcycle with no one wearing helmets. The Namibian baby is constantly putting rocks and bones in his mouth, all the perfect chocking hazard size. The Mongolian parents are a little more careful; they give the baby a homemade pacifier that appears to be a piece of animal intestine with a wooden matchstick through one side to keep him from swallowing it. The Namibian baby loves to insert her hand deep in the mouths of the feral-looking family dogs (and lick their tongues for good measure) and crawl unattended through the hooves of large roaming cattle. On numerous occasions you are all but shouting for the camera man to intervene, but of course the babies are fine.
Five Things I Learned While Making the Documentary Babies
- Once the basic needs like nutrition and health were fulfilled, all the babies needed to be able to grow up in the most beautiful way was time, affection and care. The love the four babies received from their parents allowed them to grow as four beautiful little human beings (in very different ways).
- The Mongolian and Namibian babies encounter their environment in the most creative way (flies, cats, goats, and nature in general). They become independent at a very early age.
- Looking at the film, I recognized as a father myself – my wife and I have kids 7, 5 and 3 years old – that we should focus on being really present for our children while spending time with them.
- Although I will probably do the very same thing in a few days when I come back home from this American trip, I also noticed that we, as parents, tend to compensate for our absences by giving toys to our children.
- And finally, I learnt that there is a huge difference between acknowledging what you should or should not do as a parent and putting that into practice. Having myself been away from my own family and three kids for almost two years, I am far from being in the best position to give advice to other parents.
- Thomas Balm’s, Director of Babies
This leads me to the second thing that strikes you as a harried, trying-to-do-it-all-right American parent: how calm, happy and engaged the Namibian and Mongolian children are with very little attention from grown-ups. The Mongolian boy is literally tied to a bedpost for hours at a time with an eight-foot strip of fabric while his mother runs errands – a great way to get reported to health and human services in the U.S. – but clearly the boy’s first year is no less warm, stimulating and magical than those of his Western counterparts.
I spoke with the director after the screening, and we commiserated over the challenge of raising children in a big city (he lives in Paris, and has two young boys and a girl; I in New York with two young boys). He talked about how harmoniously the eight Namibian children played together – he said they almost never fought – and meanwhile his doted-upon Parisian kids are constantly at it (as are our two little hellions).
I am starting to think that Western kids are higher maintenance than their third world counterparts because we both over-attend to them and under-attend to them at the same time. On the one hand we protect and coddle our children excessively; on the other, when we are with them, we are distracted by Blackberries and battling our own boredom. It’s seems possible, watching Babies, that we try too hard and not hard enough – we force ourselves to do the things that siblings and peers more naturally do (like playing with educational toys on our hands and knees) and then have less patience than we should the rest of the time (I am guilty of this anyway). When kids identify parents as playmates and compete for an inadequate amount of parental attention, they get feisty and frustrated; when they are interacting with a broader collection of peers and animals, as the Namibian and Mongolian babies do in this film, they are stimulated and find a natural equilibrium. These were the thoughts I had walking out of Babies last night.
Babies is not for everyone – it’s a slow, contemplative piece of anthropology, and those of us who have trouble slowing down (I am guilty here) will find themselves fidgety at times. But it’s also the kind of film that has what I’ll call a Doppler impact – it comes slowly at first and then, after walking out of the theater, the cumulative power of it gobsmacks you. It’s a gorgeous film, each scene lovingly shot – Balmes spent days with each family for each hour of footage (and shot 400 hours, which were edited down to 80 minutes), and it shows. I am still digesting it, and I look forward to watching it with my kids. I have a hunch that, seeing it, they’ll want to take their next spring break in Namibia.