Sunday, May 16, 2010

My Review of the Babies Movie


I just (finally) saw the Babies movie! I have to say it was highly entertaining. I knew from the trailer that I would probably love it (a cross-cultural look at moms and babies? yes!) but I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Turns out this documentary is a comedy! 

The movie follows four babies in four different countries for about an hour in documentary format: Ponijao, who lives with her family near Opuwo, Namibia; Bayarjargal, who resides with his family in Mongolia, near Bayanchandmani; Mari, who lives with her family in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, who resides with her family in the United States, in San Francisco (only one boy!) 

The movie has no narration and very little dialogue. Director Thomas Balmès explained that, "The specificity of documentary is reality. My way has been to narrate through the choice of a subject, a casting of characters, a very strict form in the filming and editing. By avoiding the usual narration, I leave each viewer creating his own." Narration is not necessary; the babies play, learn, experience and grow as they live their first year of life and we are entertained by it all. 

How were the babies selected for the film? Well, actually, the pregnant moms were selected! Balmes said that, "The idea was to have a variety of different environments, not to pretend to cover all continents, but to show levels of relationship with modernity, from the traditional Himba tribal life to the Neons sounds of Tokyo."  

He notes that it was actually easier to film in Namibia and Mongolia, where the babies spent a lot of time outdoors. "Shooting in tight quarters in Tokyo and San Francisco were much more challenging.  The director had to keep in mind that filming in a small Tokyo apartment or SF house is much more "intrusive and disturbing for the privacy of the families than filming in the Steppes of Mongolia or the Namibian desert." The making of the film required 400 hours of film footage!

Each baby has its own personality, and its easy to fall in love. Bayar, the Mongolian baby, was very smiley and happy no matter what he was doing, except maybe when his sadistic older brother was repeatedly hitting him in the face with a piece of cloth (but he recovered quickly). His older brother provided a ton of comedy in the film. It was a scene with Mari, the Japanese girl, that made me laugh the hardest... She tries repeatedly to put a toy stick into the hole of a ring and when her efforts fail she flings herself onto the ground in a melodramatic tantrum. You just have to watch to see what I mean. Hattie, the San Franciscan baby, decides she doesn't want to be at her "Earth is our Mother" sing-along anymore and gets up and walks out. And Ponijao goes on so many adventures it leaves you amazed at learning what a baby in an African desert can get up to on her own! 

I loved witnessing the cultural differences, not only in the moms and babies lives but also in the parenting styles, foods, baths, and toys. Balmes said that doing a film about raising children in different cultures, "kept on convincing me of the necessity to shift perspectives on everything we believe in and always keeping in mind that there is not "one good way" of thinking, doing, etc... but as many as there are yet different cultures on this planet." 

Some parents may shake their heads or worry about the antics that the babies' parents let them get into, such as letting them roam freely in the cow pasture or chewing on anything she finds on the ground. There are a few moments where you gasp when you worry about a baby's safety. Balmes says, "I was very clear with parents that they keep on behaving as when I was not there and that I was not babysitting. I felt that if parents felt comfortable with kids doing this or that I should not interfere and in fact everything went fine."

It is important to understand that different parenting style does not mean it is worse. Some babies were left to their own devices to entertain themselves, others were given lots of toys or taken to "mommy and me" type classes.  Some walked around half naked, others had fabulous outfits. Some were bathed in the shower, others in a tub outside, and some with their mother's saliva and red ochre paste. All babies were happy and healthy!

From Balmes: "In Mongolia the father slept in a bed with the older boy & mother slept with Bayar. Mari's family used a bed just for her - unusual in Japan where families sleep with kids for a long time for space reasons. Hattie's parents were stricter with naps and nights which we had to respect. Poni stopped napping early and spent all day exploring the neighborhood." 

"Himbas [tribe] mothers feed kids on demand. They are also fed by different family members. You see Poni breastfed by her older sister. Hattie's mom used a pump to collect milk later given by bottle. In Japan babies are fed almost standing to digest better. Without much water or creams, Bayar's mom used her milk to hydrate and clean his face." 

I loved the Babies movie and I highly recommend it. It is poignant and funny, aww-inducing and educational. I love seeing how mother's in other cultures live - how they dress, do their hair, feed their babies, play with their babies, and basically go about their daily lives. Its great to see how the babies interact with their siblings, their animals and their food. Though it seems simplistic, a documentary about babies can really open our eyes to the beautiful spectrum of human culture. 

(Of course, the movie also raised some unanswered questions: How were the babies birthed? What is maternity care like? What is it the Namibian women cover their hair with? How long did all the moms breastfeed? Why did it seem that dads were mostly out of the picture in Mongolia and Namibia? Is it a cultural thing that as a girl, Poni had her genitals covered in front, but none of the little boys had theirs covered? What did the Mongolian mom say to Bayar when she got so upset with him for spilling the water pail (no subtitles) Why is our culture so extremely worried all the time about things like hand-sanitizer before holding baby, when Namibian babies can eat rocks and bones and be just fine? Did Bayar's brother push him out in the stroller and leave him because he doesn't like him? and so forth)

Have you seen the movie yet? What did you think? What questions did it raise for you? And what was your favorite part?! :)


  1. Awwww I want to see it sooo bad. Cant wait to. Sounds great!

  2. I personally felt that the little boy Mongolian toddler was basically ignored by his mother. She sleeps with the baby brother as the toddler is left to himself and is basically only given negative attention.... Like when he makes his brother cry by offering him a biscuit, trying ton feed him, and only getting a screaming mom in return. The Mongolian kids are pretty much ignored. They likely did not even notice where their baby was most of the time, and the mom comes across like a witch with a b in the movie, especially as her baby boy gets older. She did spank him and hit him on the bottom, and probably tried to hold back as the cameras were there.

    Yes, in the Western countries we have a certain way of doing things, and I am not so ethnocentric or closed minded as not to recognize the differences in culture.

    Whereas the Namibian mother was truly a very good and experienced mother, and all the kids smiled and were very happy and well socialized, the Mongolian mother was quick to jump on an occurrence if she were around, but only to yell or hit. The Namibian mother, Japanese parents, and SF parents were very affectionate and gave a lot of positive reward rather than focusing on neglect or punishment. I am sure that as a Mongolian female she was a second class citizen and given the dad was never actually seen other than to pick her up at the hospital with his newborn son, he was likely not the best source of new fatherhood love for his older son.

    All the older brother was doing is acting out on his very true realization that he had little of his mothers attention as a baby up to when he could breastfeed, and now with the new baby, no more sleeping with mom or getting very much physical and emotional affection from her.

    I say this as a mom of 3, with my oldest son having severe autism. I breastfed all of them until 1 year of age, and understand the juggling act with all other work around the house and working outside the home.

    One thing it did make me realize is that the SF mom had all the new gadgets and books and classes, but really it seemed like overkill.

    If anything, the Mongolian mom just needs to get some antidepressants and a few parenting classes. The dad needs to actually get real and help with his kid. I want to see how his older brother turns out given the little actual positive attention given to him by his mom. The baby is outside in the DARK in a stroller in the Mongolian steppes and she had NO idea where he was? Really?

    I get that this was a "slice of life" documentary, but at what point do the cameramen have to actually SAY something about both of the parents' poor parenting skills.... At LEAST for the year 2010....

    Does anyone else agree? Disagree? Tell me what you think....


  3. Hey Stephanie. We just watched babies for the second time as my 4yr old is fascinated by the little ones.

    Check out the in depth interview with Purev and Mandakh , parents of with reference to Bayar(of Mongolia). It will provide some cultural insight to the nomadic lifestyle and childcare. HTH

  4. Hello! Just discovered your blog. I am a new doula as well, and look forward to looking over some of your older posts. I saw the babies movie as well, and also enjoyed it. To respond to comments above, I think we need to be careful about judging other mothers based on a 1.5 hour film. We don't know what's going on in their lives and why they make the choices they do. We all do the best we can!

  5. Hi DeeDee!
    We definitely should be careful about judging mothers based on a 1.5 hour film, but also at all. Just because its different from what we know doesn't mean its worse or better, and every mother gets by as best she can! :)

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  7. My favorite parts of the film were the interactions between babies and animals. I loved seeing the Mongolian baby sitting in the tub and the goat walks up to drink from it. Or the African baby putting his hand in the dog's mouth. The mothers were not squeamish about it at all!


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