Babies is a new documentary that follows four babies from four corners of the world. Like National Geographic wildlife films which track species in their natural habitat, French filmmaker Thomas Balmès’ observational documentary focuses on the lives of four human babies: Ponijao from Namibia, Bayarjargal from Mongolia, Mari from Tokyo, and Hattie from San Francisco.
And like a well-photographed nature doc with close-ups of stunning gazelles or curious chimpanzees or impossibly adorable lion cubs, visual aesthetics are at the forefront of this movie. On one level, it’s mommy porn. What mom whose last kid is long past babyhood wouldn’t ogle these gorgeously photographed, chubby-cheeked gurglers and giggly wobblers? Not me.
But there’s another, more anthropological, sociologically significant level to the film. Babies follows the four infants from birth to 18th months. With no narration, it’s organized with “compare and contrast” editing: the babies are babbling/being cleaned/beginning to crawl/bothering cats.
We observe the universality of babies, the biological consistencies. Some babies might visit the zoo while other babies have goats drinking from their bathwater, but all babies have melt-downs, love being sung to, and (given the chance), torture their cat or dog.
While Hattie and Mari are being raised in urban, middle-class environments, Bayarjargal is growing up on his family’s small livestock farm on the arid and isolated rural plains of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia. Ponijao is part of the Himba tribe, a group of nomadic, pastoral Namibians in Southern Africa.
In contrast to films in the Up Series (which tracked young kids over years to find out who they grew up to be), Babies is a one-time gig. We won’t find out what type of people they will become, but we do see that their behaviors are surprisingly similar, considering how varied their environments are.
I tried not to bring my own cultural biases to the movie, yet I spent a lot of time worrying about Ponijao and Bayarjargal. Bayarjargal sleeps while there’s a rooster rustling on top of him – what if he gets pecked? Bayarjargal climbs on a rusty can and a bunch of cows get too close – where’s his mom? Ponijao’s mom shaves his head with a knife – eeks! – and he spends a lot of time watching flies. I hope he’s happy!
But more often, I felt embarrassed by the over-attentive precious parenting of the San Francisco couple: the mommy-baby yoga, the sing-alongs. In one scene, Hattie’s daddy peels banana strings for her, while Ponijao and his eight siblings feed themselves from a bowl of what looks like wet flour. In another scene, Hattie’s mom shows her the No Hitting lift-the-flap book, while Bayarjargal’s mother is milking cows and tending goats while the baby’s older brother whacks him with great gusto.
Though these isolated examples might suggest the contrary, Thomas Balmès’ film doesn’t have an overt agenda. With virtually no dialogue, no subtitles, and very little attention to the parents, the film’s most pronounced emphasis is on its striking cinematic compositions. With a good deal of restraint and, thankfully, little sentimentality, Babies is an unusually still and quiet film. But maybe a little too quiet? Without the developmental bend of films like Seven Up! or the socio-political perspective of films like The Business of Being Born, Babies is missing not only a strong narrative, but a point of view, a perspective. Cooing and gurgling are cute, but a distinct voice might have lifted this film just a tad above the nature documentary genre.