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."
(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?! :)