An entire documentary that’s just four infants being mind-blowingly cute could come off as a cheap stunt. (What’s next, a film called Kittens in Hats Falling Asleep?) Luckily Babies balances the cute with compelling cultural insights.
Sure, watching human babies gambol and cavort is entertaining and aww-inspiring. After all, infant mammals are big-eyed and cute for an evolutionary reason: so their parents are less inclined to eat them. But in his documentary Babies, French filmmaker Thomas Balmès has some cultural observations to make aside from just wallowing in Cutesville.
Babies follows four infants for about a year, from birth to their first toddlings. Two rural tots: Ponijao from Opuwo, Namibia, in the desert brushlands of Africa, and Bayar from the steppes of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia. And two big-city girls: Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from San Francisco. There are no interviews, no voice-over narration, and not a lot of dialogue—we see and hear the children’s parents from time to time, but often they’re like the grown-ups in Peanuts cartoons, wah-wah-wahing from just off-screen.
That leaves us with the babies center stage at all times and carrying out a nonstop parade of really adorable and very funny baby things. Playing with animals, such as house cats… or goats and roosters; fending off ambushes from older siblings; crawling and eventually dancing. In fact, the storyline of Babies is very cliché, simplistic and predictable: Babies are born and then they grow up. Come on, who didn’t see that coming?
But while Babies sometimes veers close to a Puppy Party video, its “nature film” quality is intentional—Balmès wants to approach human infants as a strange remote species to be observed in the wild. And what makes the film interesting, once the cuteness overload simmers down, is the cultural differences and similarities his camera captures.
There’s no doubt that for many Western viewers the Mongolian and African scenes are the most fascinating, the most distant from our upbringings. Bayar grows up in a warmly comfortable rug-covered yurt tent on wind-swept Mongolian plains, brought home from the hospital on the back of a motorcycle and taught to crawl among cows and goats. (Though being raised by Mongolian herders doesn’t seem that much different from the childhoods of our parents and grandparents who grew up on American farms in the first half of the last century.) Ponijao’s life is entirely pre-industrial, even pre-agricultural, her home a mud and stick hut.
Oh, Baby Baby
Babies’ strength is that it doesn’t take a distanced, haughty anthropological view, but instead quietly focuses on how much alike the lives of human babies are—despite radically different social, cultural and economic environments.
At the same time, Balmès is not above making some pointed cultural observations via editing. San Francisco Hattie and her crunchy, sensitive yuppie parents are in the film primarily for contrast: We’ll see her mother asking a doctor about SIDS, then cut to Ponijao’s mother tending to her with home remedies and methods, far removed from any official medical care. There’s Hattie in a backyard Jacuzzi, then Ponijao splashing in a mud puddle. We watch Hattie and Mari in “structured play classes” and “baby yoga” sessions, then jump to Bayar happily playing underfoot among the livestock.
As we see Hattie and her parents chanting in a classroom about Mother Earth then cut to Ponijao and her family living smack dab in the exposed middle of Mother Earth, the message is clear: Parents in developed countries are probably a little overprotective, overachieving, and over-sincere about their offspring, but no matter where you go, most people love their children.
Babies occasionally teeters on the edge of a novelty film, but Balmès’ honest interest in the various cultures of child-rearing and the cross-cultural nature of maternal love keeps the film from being overwhelmed by cuteness without sacrificing genuine joy.
That said, ideally any documentary should teach you stuff. Here are five things I learned from Babies:
- Babies are cute.
- Babies with animals are just ridiculously cute.
- If you must have a sibling, try your hardest to be born first.
- Babies talk a lot, but really don’t say much.
- There will be pee.