Monday, October 11, 2010


Babies (2010; dir. Thomas Balmès) is both an entertaining and disturbing documentary about the first year of life for four babies born in different parts of the world—Namibia, San Francisco, Mongolia, and Tokyo. There is no narration and virtually no dialogue, other than what people in the film occasionally say to one another. The camera moves back and forth from one baby to another, paralleling their growth and experiences. All these babies are cute, but their cuteness quickly becomes (despite the trailers) a secondary interest. The film focuses both on what these babies and their families have in common, and on differences. For instance, while we see three of the babies looking at, reacting to, cats and dogs and other animals, we see the Namibian baby, Ponijao, entranced by swarming flies. The conditions of his life, especially compared with the lives of the San Francisco and Tokyo babies, seem severe and deprived. He will grow up in challenging circumstances, but the film suggests that his life is what he will have—his mother cares for him, his siblings play with or sometimes ignore him, the world rolls on around him. He will grow up as most children grow up. The film does not ask its viewers to feel sorry for him. Instead it wants us (I think) to see him and his life as an example of human and cultural diversity.

Compared to the Mongolian and African babies, the babies in Tokyo and San Francisco are growing up in world of affluence and self-indulgence. In one scene the mother of the San Francisco baby takes her to a class where mothers and their babies sing a song to Mother Earth. The Tokyo baby rides with its mother on a glass-lined elevator and gazes in awe at the brilliant lights of the city skyline. The Mongolian baby has the rolling grass-covered hills of the steppes surrounding him, and for the African baby there is bare dirt and dry grass.

The Mongolian child, Bayar, a boy, was my favorite among the babies. His family loves and cares for him but often leaves him untended. We often see him by himself, as he lies swaddled on a bed (surrounded by goats) or sitting in a water-filled basin or standing in a doorway. His is a rich environment. He lives in an elaborate tent with the rest of his family (a tent with electricity and television). His brother is jealous of him and in one scene rolls him in a carriage out into the middle of a field full of cows and leaves him. The film’s final scene is a moment for Bayar of triumph and transformation.

The most poignant and painful moment in the film comes when Bayar accidentally spills a bowl of milk on the floor. He’s not really aware of what he has done or of the mess he has made. When he sees his mother come into the room he smiles at her, but then she speaks roughly and swats him. The look of confusion, pain, unhappiness, and despair that passes in waves over his face as he becomes suddenly aware of the world of sorrow and separateness is hard to see.

I have difficulty accepting what Babies seems to argue—that the common experiences shared among these babies are more important than the differences that separate them. The film leaves no doubt about the material and social differences in their lives. It is difficult not to wish for Ponijao a better life, to worry about the conditions in which he lives. The mortality rate for children younger than five years in Namibia is 65.6 deaths per thousand children, as compared to 4.2 for Japanese children and 7.8 for children of the United States. The mortality rate for children in Mongolia is 53.8 deaths per thousand.[1] The futures for some of these babies may be no future at all. These painful facts for me undercut the feel-good intentions of the film.

[1] CIA Factbook, April 2009.

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