Babies (Focus, PG)

The fact that these are very expensive pseudo-home movies won’t be enough to redeem the film if you don’t have an almost infinite interest in the subject matter.

Your enjoyment of Thomas Balmes’ Babies, a documentary which follows four babies through their first year of life, will depend far more on what you bring to the film that what he’s put in it. If you heartily endorse the film’s tagline “Everyone loves [babies]” and have an interest in watching just about anyone’s baby sleep, drool, cry and do other baby-like things, then you’re squarely in the target market for this film. Add extra points if you think The Family of Man was the greatest photo exhibit eve,r and subtract points if maternal and infant nudity offends you (although if it does, I’m not sure how much you can really claim to love babies since they don’t come into the world wearing snugglies, nor is infant formula their natural food).

On the other hand, if the thought of sitting through what is essentially 90 minutes of home movies makes you want to claw your eyes out, then you’ll probably want to give this one a miss. The fact that these are very expensive pseudo-home movies beautifully shot (by Jerome Almeras, Frazer Bradshaw and Steeven Petitteville) and edited (by Reynald Bertrand and Craig McKay) with a calculated multi-culti angle probably won’t be enough to redeem the film if you don’t have an almost infinite interest in the subject matter.

Babies has four “stars”: Bayarjargal, born in Mongolia; Ponijao, born to the Himba tribe in Namibia; Mari, born in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, born in San Francisco. The film follows them from the final days of their mothers’ pregnancy through birth and the various milestones of (approximately) the first year, culminating in baby’s first steps. There’s lots of cross-cutting between the different locations as well as establishing shots (herds of goats thundering past; the Tokyo skyline), and the filmmakers include some quirky events (a goat drinking from the baby’s bath water; a rooster strutting across the baby’s bed) which have a wonderful “found” quality.
The film is almost without dialogue: The only words spoken are diegetic and those not in English are left untranslated. This was a wise decision on the part of the filmmakers because it produces the impression that we are simply present in the same space as the baby, observing whatever is taking place. Not surprisingly, the filmmakers have selected short, interesting and mostly happy moments (another wise move as well as a commercially calculating decision) for us to watch; we have no idea what got left on the cutting room floor, but that’s the power of the editing suite.
The lack of context does bother me, however. It’s a normal human tendency to make judgments and draw inferences based on information presented to us, and the filmmakers invite this by implicit comparisons between, for example, the technology of an American hospital and the apparently more natural process of birth in Namibia. So I hope people will take the snippets of life presented on screen as just that: snippets selected to make a marketable film.
Having said that, I have a particular fondness for one sequence. Hattie is at some kind of baby-parent class where the leader is trying to get everyone to sing a new-agey song about how the earth is our mother. Apparently having more sophisticated musical tastes than the adults around her, she just gets up and leaves the circle, even trying to open a door although she is much too small to reach the handle, let alone push it open. Good for you, kid! I would have left, too.
Even if you aren’t wild about seeing Babies for its own sake, you may be interested in the film as a sociological phenomenon (if it does well, I wouldn’t be surprised to see sequels on the themes of “Kitties” and “Puppies,” and maybe “Mothers” and “Grandparents,” as well) and as a case study in how a certain type of cultural documentary is made. The filmmakers are quite forthcoming about their process, from “casting” the families to deciding what to include from 400 days worth of footage: you can read about it on the Focus Features website. You could also do an interesting study on people’s reactions to the film. How quick are they to judge the American mother as opposed to the other three? How worried are they about the flies which seem to be ever-present in the Namibia sequences? and so on. I guess I have to pay this much of a compliment to Thomas Balmes his crew: They’ve created a cultural document which is sure to be much discussed in the weeks and months to come. | Sarah Boslaugh

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