In the fall of 2009, the Babies families – including the children themselves – were shown the finished movie by director Thomas Balmès. Afterwards, they were invited to discuss (with translators present, as needed) their feelings about this most unique component of their family history.
What made you decide to commit you and your family to participating in the movie?
Tarererua [Ponijao’s mother]: When Hindere [Ponijao’s father] and I heard about this project, we were not believing that it was true. [Since] I have never been in the hospital, I wanted to be [part of the] shooting so that I could take [the production up on the offer of care] by the private doctor. Hindere agreed; [the production would] take my baby [and I] to the hospital without taking my money, or [our having to be] selling one of our goats to get money.
Thomas asked how the other people [in the village would be] feeling [about the filmmakers working there]. I said, first we have to inform the Chief of the village that [these are] our visitors from France so that he can understand why they come. We were happy to be with Thomas. We welcomed Thomas like [a member of] our family. Each time when he [was] coming [for a new stay], we are kissing each other like a family.
We welcomed these [film] people to be in our home; they were helping the whole family, not only Ponijao. During shooting, they [would] buy food for the family and give some money, take them [i.e., family members] to the hospital.
One of my kids is already going to school; he’s in grade 10 now. He can write for us, all my kids’ names. Two [more children], a boy and a girl [are] going to school. The others stay home and look after the animals.
So, Ponijao is a movie star now, and a little older…
T: Ponijao is [now] two-and-a-half years old, trying to be three years old. She likes to dance, all day, playing with other kids. We eat fish with her, porridge and milk.
What were your and Ponijao’s reactions to the movie?
T: I was afraid that the cow was very close with the baby [in Mongolia]. When the baby who was playing [i.e., Mari] and was trying to put something on a pole, then she fell down, I was thinking the mother [did] not hear the woefulness of the baby’s crying. I wanted to tell the mother to be close to the baby. The one playing with the toilet papers [i.e., Bayarjargal] was the most happy baby; he can play [by] himself.
She was very happy [watching the movie]. She said to me, “This is me. I’m there. This is my mother. These are my brothers. This is my sister.” She can see that [family members] would carry her and take care of her. When she is grown up, she can know what [was] happening when she [was] a baby. I wanted this gift for her.
Ponijao was laughing when she saw [other] babies. I was very, very interested [to see] everything that involved other women – the way they are treating their babies, the place[s] where they are, to see pregnant women in another country getting put in the hospital, giving birth. All my babies [were] born just in the village.
Tell us a little about the red ochre that women use to wash with.
T: We are not washing our bodies with water; putting that red thing on our body is the way we are washing our bodies. If I didn’t put [that] on during the day, then I smell bad. The men use [it, too,] but not too much, only a little bit. The men can wash themselves with water also because they’re not wearing many things.
What are people in the village expecting from the movie?
T: They say it’s a good thing to have had the movie shoot so that a lot of the country can know how they are living in Opuwo, and they are happy to be seen in other countries.
Other [tribes] have changed; only the Himba are still in the traditional culture. But I want Ponijao to decide for herself [if] she will stay. After shooting, they [i.e., the filmmakers] have [given] help for Ponijao to be something in the future. She can take care of her [own] baby [some day] in good condition.
How do you feel about the whole experience?
T: Another [movie] shooting [here would be] more than welcome.
What did Bayar[jargal] think of the movie?
Mandakh [Bayar’s mother]: I think he was a bit puzzled and wasn’t sure that it was him or not. But [then] he said, “That’s me,” and was very happy. Sometimes [he was a] little shy [watching it].
What is he like now?
M: He is going to be four in May . He is very straightforward, and likes to compete with people – he’s confident enough. If you say [to him] “Don’t do that” [and] make your voice higher, then he will be stubborn. But if you explain to him in a good manner that “you shouldn’t be doing that,” he listens and he cooperates with you.
Are he and Degi still jostling with each other, like we see in the movie?
Purev [Bayar’s father]: It looks like they fight a lot, but in reality they’re very close. They always share food and protect each other. If there is any problem happening with other kids, they stand in front of each other.
Did you place any limitations on Thomas and the filmmakers during shooting?
P: No, because we knew that they were observing our life and how our child is growing.
M: In the beginning, I was a little nervous – while they were shooting my labor. But because the pain was so severe, I completely forgot there was crew there.
P: We trusted them, and [had to] because we can’t always be staying here [at home]; we have so many things to do. Make sure that the stove be warm and kids be fed and have things to wear. Take care of the cattle. We were not stuck because they were filming.
M: We learned this way of raising [a] child from our grandmother[s]. We are nomads. We can’t always be inside and taking care of our baby.
Do you have favorite parts of the movie?
M: The piece I like [is] when I was singing [a] lullaby. And then touching Bayar’s cheek and we bang [heads] together. That moment was precious for me.
P: When Bayar is trying to catch his feet. And when he is standing at the end of the movie and trying to make his first step. He’s the real Mongolian, standing against the wind. And smiling.
I liked it when parents are playing together with kids; this film manages to follow how kids get raised in different countries. In America and Japan, it seems like a very important process for them that many people are raising kids; singing, communicating.
I felt sorry for the Japanese girl [Mari]; I wish she [could get to] see a nice horizon, she can’t be always inside. We see the huge, beautiful views of our country, so that’s why our [country’s] kids [are] usually raised close to nature, [to grow] up calm and humble people. And sometimes very naïve.
For me, most interesting was [Ponijao,] the baby from Africa. The kids [there] are raised in a very simple way, a very strong manner.
M: I noticed that the Namibian mother is more close to the child. Always together; breast-feeding, making [i.e., braiding the] hair of the babies.
P: Our responsibility is fifty-fifty raising childs [sic]. Mandakh takes care of things mainly in the household; that’s why there were more images of they [i.e., she and Bayar] being together.
M: We agreed that it should be both of our responsibility. In reality, I stay more inside and Purev is outside.
P: I have to go take care of the other bigger part of our household business.
Were there any sequences in the movie that surprised or concerned you?
P: We worried while seeing Bayar with the cows. We were busy somewhere [while that was happening]. The reason, I think, Bayar was with the young cows [was] because he was playing very close to the water. Usually young cows come to have water in the middle of the day. Young cows are not very dangerous. Usually we try not to put very close our kids with the animal because it could be some threat. Mongolians know how to deal with animals.
M: Two moments made me [a] little bit to be shy. I am very sorry that I did wash Bayar making, you know, water in my mouth. Secondly, people will see for the first time how we process and prepare meat.
P: Also we were learning that we should be more neat and organized within our house.
So is Bayar a movie star now?
M: No, I don’t think so. Many people will see him on-screen, but there’s other kids who played in this movie. And there’s so many other kids in the world.
P: My answer is the same.
What is important for children to have?
P: Education. Either my kids will be nomads or they will be taking different profession[s]. We will do our best to make sure that our kids have access to education.
Did you have any trepidation about agreeing to appear in the movie?
Seiko [Mari’s mother]: When we heard about the movie, I was [already] pregnant. I thought it was going to be a special period, a good experience for me, [my husband] Fumito, and the newborn baby. [Doing the movie] helped me, I enjoyed everything –meeting new people.
I didn’t think it was going to be this worldwide [-released] movie. [laughs] Now I’m a bit concerned about it.
Fumito [Mari’s father]: We feel it is a very meaningful project for new families. We [both] and Thomas speak English, so we could communicate. It was a very good crew and we keep in touch. They really cared about us.
Were there any trying times while shooting was going on?
S: When Mari was a very small baby.
F: You got exhausted, Seiko?
S: Sometimes, yes. When I was pregnant, it’s more easy for me to walk or do anything. But when she was very small, it was more difficult for me to schedule the filming, her nap, her feeding. When they want to film her, she wants to get sleep.
What were your favorite, or most surprising, scenes of Mari in the movie?
S: The close-up shot of Mari when she was sleeping and she smiles. I think she was dreaming about something.
F: For me, it’s Mari walking in the kids’ [toy] store and looking around with very curious eyes. She was looking for something, or liked something.
S: I remember it. [laughs] We walked around many, many times.
In Mari’s room, we see some specifically educational toys –
F: It doesn’t have to be educational. Just [so long as an object can] make her move her fingers. Let her think. A leaf, glasses…
She moves her fingers to pull the cat’s tail…!
F: They’re okay as friends, I think. [laughs]
S: They do fight. Sometimes. She’s very bossy to him.
What did you think of the other families and babies in the movie?
F: They [are] all beautiful. Watching the film, people [will] feel maybe strong life powers.
S: For me, it was [a] very warm movie, about love and how [babies] grow up. In some part[s], they are all very similar. In some parts, they’re all so different, in the culture. But they do the same thing[s] and take the same step[s] growing up.
F: The reactions [too]. It really doesn’t matter where they live. All mothers [are] present; that’s the time you can spend with your child. All the mothers, I don’t feel like [there’s] much difference [among them].
S: I feel the difference. The American mother and me, we go out to lessons or [are] meeting other families [with] kids. But I see the Namibian mother taking care of her baby all by herself or with her mother. It’s more [of a] close society; a deep strong connection. She’s [i.e., Ponijao’s mother] very quiet, she really loves her baby. In that [respect,] we have the same feeling.
Fumito, how involved are you in raising Mari?
F: My generation, we really care about the family stuff. More focus on [it], on the baby grow[ing] up. [Since] 20 years ago, [when] Japan got wealthy, they care about it [more].
Did Thomas make the movie he promised you?
F: I think so. Well-done; better than we expected, actually.
S: We both work in the fashion industry, but [Babies] is totally different from what we know about shooting [nonfiction footage].
What is Mari like these days?
F: She eats a lot. [laughs] She’s trying to explore every single day. I think she is a little bit [of a] neat freak. [laughs] She is always trying to clean up everything.
Is Mari a movie star now?
F: [laughs] This is a first step. She started [on-screen] before she was born.
What was Mari’s reaction watching the movie?
S: I think she recognized her[self]. Maybe she was a bit shy.
F: She’s used to it because we have a Handicam video camera. We film her all the time and show her herself on the TV. She [felt] a little bit curious [when] she’s crying [in the playroom sequence]. Mari [will] really appreciate this [movie] in 10 or 20 years.
Would you let a film crew spend so much time with your family again?
S: We’d love to.
F: Of course, definitely. We miss the process and the crew.
S: Yeah, sometimes when she makes something new, we talk about Thomas.
F: “We should have filmed that one.”
What inspired you to have Hattie and yourselves participate in this project?
Susie [Hattie’s mother]: For Hattie to have a connection to children from other countries. And, maybe once she’s older – 12 or 13 – to get together with the other children. I really look forward to meeting those families.
Frazer [Hattie’s father]: We didn’t want the shooting to interfere with our lives. We wanted Hattie to be able to just be a baby. Thomas assured us that that was the point – to let the babies just be babies and document it. He was a little surprised that we were so game to do it.
S: We thought it would be fun. Frazer did some of the shooting, so in some ways it did blend into our life; Hattie got used to cameras. Thomas checked out the house, and then the next time we saw him was a few days after Hattie was born. There was a contract which said that they would protect the needs of the baby, eating and sleeping et cetera.
F: Susie did a certain amount of production management to help facilitate logistics; we had to get permits to shoot in [certain] areas.
Which parts of the movie were your favorites, or surprised you?
S: I like [laughs] where she’s so very confident peeling the banana and then bites into it at the wrong end; it’s a little bit suspenseful, you think, “Oh, maybe it doesn’t bother her.” Then she spits it out and kind of says “No!” but she’s very even-keeled and figures it out and carries on. That seems very much like Hattie.
I loved seeing the footage of her kind of talking; she seems so young and so old at the same time. Another scene I really like is when she’s sitting wearing the pink onesie and the cat walks by, and you see her watching the cat and she thinks about going towards the cat but she just stays.
F: I don’t know that I can pick a favorite, but the shot where Hattie’s in her “jumpy chair” hanging in the kitchen doorway – I like the juxtaposition of her [being] so active but [also] contained, confined by the chair while Susie’s preparing lunch or dinner behind Hattie.
S: Hattie’s favorite scene was of Bayar “peeing,” which I thought was pretty funny. Actually, I think that was my favorite scene – and where Bayar’s outside, crawling through that incredible landscape with the huge sky and the laundry hanging. And the hilarity of the goat coming to drink his bath water, and it doesn’t bother Bayar at all.
Hattie was interested in some of the things that she saw that were similar. [Watching] when the Namibian child’s hair was being cut with a knife, I was amazed that Hattie recognized that he was getting a haircut. She didn’t like the scene in Namibia where Poni and the older sibling are kind of fighting and biting; she did not appreciate the crying.
F: The scenes in the hospital I found particularly beautiful and poignant but they’re also heart-wrenching because I have a visceral memory of Hattie being so vulnerable in those first few days of life.
S: I noticed in those scenes that I have my hand up because I’m blocking the light from her. That was seeing myself becoming a Mom, the little tiny gestures you make to protect your child.
What was happening in the hospital, exactly?
S: We are very proud of the fact that Hattie had a beautiful birth at home. For the delivery, I was assisted by two incredible midwives, Frazer, and two close friends. After she was born, she was not breathing as strongly as the midwives wanted to see. So we took her to the pediatrician, and the pediatrician suggested she be taken to the hospital to get assistance to clear her lungs and make sure she was getting enough oxygen. She was never in danger, and she would have likely been fine at home, but we sought medical help to make sure her lungs were clear and she was always getting enough oxygen. She stayed in the hospital for three days to have antibiotics to prevent infection.
F: They did dozens of tests and they all came back negative.
S: We were there with her the whole time. The children’s hospital is two blocks from our house; she was still able to nurse and be with us. She came home after being in the Neo-Natal Intensive Care Unit – NICU – where there are babies born at 27 weeks. That was in no way Hattie’s situation; she was full-term, beautiful and healthy. She came home after three days. It was scary and it was difficult, but she was always fine and we were always confident in that.
So good to know, thank you. What contrasts struck you between Hattie and the other babies?
S: There are all these very different contexts, but you see a lot of similar things – especially in their faces, and that sense of all of them taking in their own worlds. All kids are at home where their home is. I loved seeing the Namibian kids. There’s a lot that’s going on around them, and they [i.e., the parents] have a comfort level with it that – with raising American babies, you don’t as much.
F: In America, we have such a broad perspective that it’s hard to know what we should be doing. Whereas in a culture, you know what to do because it’s the same thing that’s always been done and you don’t have to second-guess yourself about everything. As American parents, we couldn’t help but second-guess ourselves about everything; “Is it the right thing to do?” The lesson I came away from [watching] this [movie] with is, pretty much anything is the right thing to do if you do it with the right spirit. You see all these different kinds of parenting and cultural contexts in an intimate way, and it shifts your perspective. We let our cultures divide us, but this film really paints a picture of the universality of being human, which we often have a hard time seeing. You definitely feel like all these parents are doing the right thing because they’re doing it in the spirit that supports the child.
S: It doesn’t feel to me like the parenting is particularly different in the different places. The parents are very absent from the film, so we don’t really know. I could identify with a lot of the things that the Japanese mother was doing; she clearly had a Moms group, going to the zoo, picnic in the park.
What is your parenting style?
F: We try to be as balanced as is realistic, given work schedules and such. It’s hard to divide anything directly down the middle.
S: We’re solidly focused on co-parenting. There’s not one parent that’s in charge and has all the answers; it’s definitely not the 1950s Father Knows Best model. It ebbs and flows because of our work. Hattie trusts both of us equally.
What is she like now?
S: She will be four in May . She’s shy for a few minutes when she meets someone, but then if she has something talk about, she’ll really talk to you about things; she likes to tell stories, bringing together the details. Right now she’s also very associative, so if a word sounds like another word or a name sounds like somebody’s she read in a story – she’s making connections between things. She’s really into riding her bike, and painting, and she likes gymnastics.
Do you consider her to be a movie star now?
S: No. We consider her to be a kid in the world.