Bringing up Babies: Director Thomas Balmès and producer Alain Chabat talk
In advance of the release of Focus Features new film Babies, the two men behind the documentary sit down to discuss the fascinating journey they went on to bring the project to fruition.
In 2005, director Thomas Balmès and producer Alain Chabat began collaborating on the documentary Babies, a project conceived by Chabat that would show the early stages of the lives of babies across four continents. The innovative concept of a "wildlife film with human babies" (as Chabat puts it) was one that Balmès particularly responded to.
Balmès has been a documentary filmmaker since the early 1990s, and specializes in projects with an international angle: Bosnia Hotel (1996) was about Kenyan U.N. peacekeepers stationed in the former Yugoslav republic; Maharadjah Burger (1997) focused on Mad Cow Disease in India; The Gospel According to the Papuans (2000) and its sequel, Waiting For Jesus (2001) examined Christianity in the jungles of Papua New Guinea; and A Decent Factory (2005) centered on the culture clash story of a Western executive visiting a cell phone factory in China.
Chabat, Balmès' fellow Frenchman, first established himself as a comedian and actor (he is the French voice of Shrek), but has more recently moved very successfully into writing, directing and producing. In 1994, he founded the production company Chez Wam, which has made such movies as the French box office smash Astèrix & Obèlix: Mission Clèopâtre (written, directed by and starring Chabat), the Charlotte Gainsbourg vehicle Prête-moi ta main (based on an original idea by Chabat, who gives a Cesar-nominated performance in the film), and the current French release Ensemble c'est trop, starring Nathalie Baye.
Below, the two men talk about their long, globetrotting journey to bring Babies into the world.
How, and how many years ago, was this project birthed, as it were?
ALAIN CHABAT: I had this idea 11-12 years ago, about watching on a big screen babies growing - without any commentary, but with music. I felt it could be an emotional experience.
We [at production company Chez Wam] met with a couple of directors to pitch them the project. Christine Rouxel, who is in charge of development at Chez Wam, met with Thomas. They had a good discussion, and Christine told me, "I think I've met someone great for the film. He laughed at our pitch." Because the pitch was, we want to do an wildlife film on human babies. Most people responded, "What?" We'd say, "Yes, and no commentary." People's responses were very dogmatic. But Thomas was the first and only who laughed and said, "I'd like to talk more about that."
THOMAS BALMÈS: I had gotten the first phone call in 2005 from Christine. Then we started planning. Filming started at the beginning of 2006, and kept on for nearly two years. Then it was almost another two years of editing, though with some breaks.
In committing to make this movie, what was the inspiration that drove you forward - was it personal, or professional?
ALAIN: I dreamt of a movie theater audience that would applaud because a baby would stand on their own two feet. These tiny things are huge adventures for them - and we've all been through that, though of course most of us can't remember. I felt we could show the commonalities as well as the differences among these babies.
THOMAS: From my perspective, this was an opportunity to do a nonfiction film of pure observation. Most of those films today are entirely scripted.
Rather than a home-video style, this project was going to have a lot of time and a lot of means - quite unique.
ALAIN: Thomas embraced the challenge, and the pleasure of it.
"CASTING" THE FAMILIES
So you had your director. How did you find the families?
ALAIN: I wanted families who wanted a child and would give love to her or him.
THOMAS: Basically, we had in each country local people helping us in legal and practical matters of organization, before we even started shooting. So they did "casting," and I went to each country to meet with who they had found. Our intention was to concentrate on the babies, of course, so access - and frequency of it - was what we were really considering.
For instance, in Mongolia, some families had been found but it would have required my taking a flight and then two additional days of travel just to get to them. That was too much, given all the travel that was already being done for the project. So our organizers went to a hospital closer to where I would be flying in, and met with mothers-to-be who would be delivering around the date we were starting filming. I came and met with about 50 people, and out of them chose two mothers to film. After a few weeks of shooting, we changed to filming only one of the two.
When I first met the Namibian family, there was absolutely no doubt that they would be in the movie. Most of the Himba tribe lives in villages surrounded by each other. They're packed in, so we were concerned about filming one family and another being jealous. But the Himba family we found was living on their own. They were so interested in the creative process, and just so full of joy and life. Among all the members of that family, you feel nothing but love. Our relationship with them was so strong and true. Ponijao in Namibia is the eighth of nine children in the family; we could all feel the love from her mother from the first day until the last day we filmed.
Throughout the "casting," the guideline was not to interfere in the babies' development, and not to create problems for the families. So we had to be quite selective.
We went with people who were happy and positive about the arrival of a child, which sounds easy but isn't. Alain was saying all the time that we needed to have joy around, and from ourselves too.
There are more girls among the babies than boys...
ALAIN: Remember we "cast" pregnant mothers so we didn't know if they were expecting boys or girls. We hired our little stars without knowing their faces or even genders. For me, it was a very new way to cast actors.
Closer to home, was France ever considered?
THOMAS: (laughs) I have never done a picture in France. My wife was pregnant with our third child at the time of shooting, but I didn't feel like shooting in this environment and she didn't want it either.
GOING INTO PRODUCTION
How many crew people were with each family?
ALAIN: One - Thomas!
THOMAS: Well, 80% of the footage you see in the finished film was shot by me, as cinematographer; 400 days of shooting over two years. We did have some local crews - a handful of people - to do some extra shooting while I was not there, but also to get the families, and the babies, used to being filmed. I had to make sure that after a few weeks they wouldn't be amazed by the camera and the sound equipment. The father of the American baby, Hattie, is himself a cameraman so he did a little bit of filming of his own daughter.
Once you were working with the families, didn't someone have to be on call for when the babies were born?
THOMAS: We don't have all four births in the movie because the births themselves were not something we wanted to concentrate too much on. Among the shots that I didn't do was the birth of Bayarjargal, in Mongolia. The equipment there to forecast the birth of a baby was not so efficient. We had crew there for three weeks waiting.
You mentioned 400 days; how many hours of footage were shot?
THOMAS: We had 400 hours of rushes, which over 400 days of shooting is not that much compared to other theatrically released nonfiction movies.
So, an hour a day on average.
THOMAS: Not really. Some days we wouldn't film at all, some days we would film for hours. Our concept was to be with the families, to watch - and to wait for something unusual to happen, something never to be replicated, something that no crew could ever go back and get again.
Alain trusted us through the process, like when we would spend two weeks in one country and come back with only one shot. The ratio - what we would bring back from each trip - was very low.
ALAIN: The footage was low in ratio, but high in quality. Sometimes Thomas would come back and say, "I don't have much," but when it was footage like that of Mari in Tokyo when she was getting frustrated while playing on the floor...the trip would be more than worth it.
The job that he did was incredible, shooting these moments and getting these amazing shots. I was always wondering how Thomas knew when to put on the camera, when and where to move, and when to wait.
THOMAS: We have shots in the finished film that last over three minutes long, which I think is unusual for this kind of feature.
What kind of cameras were used, film or digital?
THOMAS: Alain and I talked about using film at the beginning. But we had to consider the budget, and the environments we would be shooting in - not to disturb the babies and the families too much. So we were very lucky to get a brand-new HD camera by Sony, one which worked well in low-light conditions. Since it was such small crews, and often me with no assistant, once we tested the HD camera we decided to do the whole movie in HD.
Was there any handheld footage? Much of what's in the film seems to be that you were using a tripod or being completely still...
THOMAS: Yes, almost everything was shot on tripod; almost nothing was handheld.
It's something you don't quite realize until well into the movie - that it's what's different. It's like an omniscient eye.
THOMAS: This was also something Alain and I talked about at the beginning, in terms of the concept. I wanted to be able in every shot to take a still out of it; as simple as possible, but framed. The early shots are beatific, and then we have more classical shots once the babies become active. When you are observing for 10-12 hours, you are defining your frame but also adapting to what is getting in or out of it. Often you had to wait for something to come back in. That helped set the pace for the whole movie. If you are patient enough with reality, what you'll come away with is better than if you were searching, and it is a gift.
Look at the shot where the two Namibian mothers are breast-feeding babies; you don't see their heads. By being selective within the frame, this makes it more universal to an audience.
We needed to have humor in the film - Alain and I agreed on that, and it's something I've tried to do in all my previous films. From his movies, Alain is used to that even more than I am. It's wonderful for us to hear people laughing throughout Babies.
THE HIMBA FAMILY
Describe the family situation in Africa a little more, if you would. Who is the other woman in the footage, and what is her relationship to Ponijao?
THOMAS: She is Ponijao's older sister, the first daughter of Ponijao's mother. The other baby is actually Ponijao's nephew, the child of her older sister.
And what is the mother spitting out while she's grooming her child?
THOMAS: There is a lot of dust in that part of Namibia, which is a problem for the babies' eyes. There is a hospital that's about a one-hour drive from where they live, but before even getting auto transportation they would have to travel on a donkey or walk for hours. Since it's too complicated, they avoid that as much as they can.
So she is trying to clean out infections in that scene you mentioned. They have to walk a little bit to even get water, so they are using their own fluids. The way they wash themselves is by mixing concrete red ochre [earth mineral/pigment] with oil that they have bought.
Then that's the red stuff she's putting on herself and Poinjao's head.
THOMAS: Yes, and it's put on every single day, on themselves and the babies. They break stones so they can mix in some clay to make it into a cream. It also works as sun protection for them; I have to say, they don't have any diseases or skin problems.
ALAIN: When the mother is licking Poinjao's eyes - and, spitting - that is also with the red mixture. It may look like blood, but it is not.
And what language do they speak?
THOMAS: That was a lesson every time I went there. They speak their own Himba language, specific to them. I had seen footage of the tribe, and I was fascinated by them. In speaking with Alain about countries to film in, I mentioned Namibia right away. Among African countries, it is very stable politically and socially, allowing tribes such as the Himba to keep on living as they are used to. The Himba don't get as many tourists as other tribes do, like those in Kenya.
Where are the men in the family? Did you just not show them?
THOMAS: The men are off looking after the cattle and looking for grass; it's exactly the same in Mongolia, as it turns out. The men in Namibia are a couple of hundred kilometers away. In my 12 trips to Namibia, I only saw Ponijao's father three times, but of course I had to keep leaving to travel...
The Himba society is very free, as are many of the tribes there; they've developed their own rules. When [Ponijao's] father is not around, another male can be in a relationship with the mother and there won't be any problems once the father returns from looking after the cattle. The mother clearly told me that not all of her nine children are from the father [of Ponijao]. He knows this.
THE MONGOLIAN FAMILY
You mentioned Mongolia. Unlike the Himba, do they move around?
THOMAS: In Mongolia, depending on the weather - exposure from the sun - or, more importantly, the grass situation - for their cattle - that family will move once or twice a year. But they're only moving a few kilometers away from the base, which is established at where they can dig a hole to get water - since that is so difficult to find in Mongolia. By local standards, this family is a rich one.
As in Namibia, the Mongolian children have the freedom to amble around, play with animals, and explore the space around them. The parents are never far away - they would be milking a cow, for example - and they do not worry.
The family includes that older brother, and there is such an interesting dynamic between the two male children. What is the older brother's name?
THOMAS: Bayarjargal's older brother's full name is Delgerjargal. But just as everybody calls Bayarjargal "Bayar," Delgerjargal is called "Degi." Degi was two years old when Bayar was born. By the way, the head-shaving ritual you see in the film is something that all boys go through at that age...
Degi's presence and behavior were definitely a big reason why I "cast" this family from among all we met. Degi is a very silent boy. I don't recall having heard a word from him until he was three. When we first met the family, I asked the parents about his silence and they explained that like many other herdsmen's kids, Degi was most of the time on his own and would only be going to school - like Bayar - at six to seven years old. So he did not see any other kids most of the year, apart from the summertime when some extra workers would come and help the family. You can see some of those visits with the young girl and Bayar at the end of the film.
Bayar and Degi's relationship is, I believe, very representative of what an older kid experiences with the arrival of a newborn; curiosity and tenderness mixed with rivalry and jealousy.
Basically, as soon as he could, Degi started to use Bayar for any kind of gentle experiment he could imagine - like he used to with his cat - which happened frequently, especially as Bayar has a good-natured and easygoing manner about him.
But when Bayar turned one, they became more like partners and started to do crazy tricks together; playing with their mother's make-up, dismantling the father's motorbike, and recklessly teasing any animal around...
THE JAPANESE FAMILY
Turning to Tokyo, what was the family situation there like?
THOMAS: As with America, it was much more complicated to "cast" and to convince people to participate.
Tokyo is such a gigantic city that you can spend half a day, in traffic, going from one place to another, and I had never shot there before. The first families that we found were living three to four hours away from the center of Tokyo in a very quiet environment...
...so I quickly realized that I didn't want to be in the suburbs; I wanted to be in the center of Tokyo, with the neon and the noise, as a contrast to the Namibia and Mongolia locations. I felt Shibuya was the most appropriate place to shoot in Tokyo, but as it is more a business area than a family haven, it was very difficult to find a pregnant woman living in this neighborhood. Another problem was that most of the Tokyo center-based families live in very small spaces where I wouldn't have the distance between me and the baby to do anything at all and it would have been impossible to film.
But we finally found a great family! They had been living abroad, so they were open-minded towards this concept in nonfiction filmmaking. Unlike in Namibia, where they're so expressive I understand what they're saying even without speaking the language, I had to be able to speak directly with the Japanese family in such an intimate situation - and the same for America. In both those cities, I communicated in English with the families.
You picked the right family in Tokyo, because of Mari - and that sequence we talked about earlier...
ALAIN: I feel like everyone can relate to that scene. I did; I get frustrated like she does.
Is it just the three of them, or are there more members of the family?
THOMAS: You don't see them, but Mari's grandfather and grandmother are there a lot. He is head of the biggest newspaper in Japan. So in the shots that show the family in a very classical Japanese environment, they are visiting the grandparents' big house in the middle of Tokyo. The parents and Mari live in the center of Shibuya, close to the station which is the nerve center of Tokyo and was the environment we were looking for.
THE AMERICAN FAMILY
The other Western city is San Francisco, where we meet Hattie. When we first see her, she is in the hospital. Was she all right?
THOMAS: Yes, she was being medically assisted like most Western babies are during birth - or, in this case, just after. Her birth was at home, but afterwards she was not breathing as strongly as everyone would have liked. In the end, all was fine and she would have likely been fine at home, but she stayed in the hospital for 3 days to get antibiotics to prevent infection. It wasn't long before she was back home and smiling.
The American parents may come in for some unfair criticism, probably because we in the West see so much of our own child-rearing struggles personified in them.
THOMAS: A friend of mine found the American family for us. They were happy to be part of this, and we were happy to have an American family when we could just as well have had a European one. As it is, both Alain and I see ourselves in them.
They're ecological; they have a Biodiesel-powered car. They only eat vegetables, and that's all they feed Hattie. For them it's all about, "How can I be good with the world?"
So they were fine with our whole process, but were straight with us about what we could or couldn't do. Their concern was that we not disturb the natural development of their child, so we shot less with them than with any of the other families - 45 minutes to an hour each day. Of course, they were also much more aware of the presence of the camera. Working that way, they were very happy with everything we did.
ALAIN: As Thomas said, we went with families welcoming their babies with love. The movie was never going to be judgmental about one family or another, comparing them with an on-the-nose "statement."
THOMAS: That's something I've tried to avoid in all my films. I don't mind raising questions, though.
What was some of what you left out of the film?
ALAIN: A few hours of footage...! We wanted to tell the babies' stories and some of the footage would tell the story twice, so we would use the best moments.
THOMAS: Yes; what remains is the best, and we needed to be fair in the [screen] time we gave to each baby. We'll have extras on the DVD or the website.
There was a lot of [additional] amazing footage from Namibia and Mongolia because we had more time in those countries; I could film at any time from 8 in the morning until 8 at night. I had less access in Japan and America; I'm not blaming them, because in Namibia and Mongolia I wasn't disturbing any process or environment. Open spaces are completely different from a 20-square-meter apartment in Tokyo.
You mentioned 12-hour days. When were the longest waiting periods?
THOMAS: The first 10 months were difficult; the babies were mostly sleeping, eating, or not doing anything at all. We had to be very patient to get even a few things. After that, our shoots were full of action.
The viewer becomes so invested in the children's learning to crawl and then walk. You must have taken great pride in their growth.
THOMAS: Once, when Alain came to Namibia, I rushed to tell him that Ponijao was now walking around; that was quite moving. We had developed relationships with these families. Making the film, I felt responsible to everybody; the producers, the parents-
ALAIN: The babies.
Thomas, do you feel the children know you?
THOMAS: Yes, and I would say Ponijao especially. I spent the most time with her and her family, so it was special. I was very proud of how she would smile at me from an early stage. She would look straight into the camera at me.
Now that you've made the film, is there anything that either of you would do differently as a parent?
ALAIN: Probably a million things, but then I'd also probably make a million different mistakes. So, basically, no, I wouldn't change...much. Fingers crossed, I have a great relationship with my children. What's most important is the love you give. That's a good start.
THOMAS: What happens between parent and child is so crucial, and I hope our film reminds people of that. Sometimes, with life happening, you can get a little lazy in developing a real relationship with your kids. I myself have. I hope Babies shows that no matter what their conditions are, wherever they live, these babies grow up happy as long as they are loved, and that this is universal.
I have to say; it's good that this project is finished, because my children didn't see me that much during shooting...My next subject will have a shorter shooting schedule. This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
What was your biggest surprise in making the film?
ALAIN: The environments were very different, as well as the parents and of course the four babies. They all have their own strong personality, distinct from one another. But they all share one thing in common: the amazing ability to adapt to his or her environment.
It is very moving to watch them learn and think with what's happening around them. Before actually making the film it was only an idea, a concept. Then it was, here they are and suddenly I cared and rooted so much for these little guys. It's like thinking about having a baby and then actually having one. Everything is different - but better.
THOMAS: For me, our simple concept became four meaningful stories. I make nonfiction films because I love challenging my ideas and expectations daily, and arriving at totally different conclusions than I could have expected, but I was still surprised at how unusual this shoot was...and how supportive the producer was, even though Alain had no way of knowing what he would get.
How would you describe the movie, in a few sentences, now that it's done?
ALAIN: A fun shared time at the movies, with total audience participation; the audience can shout, speak, comment, or laugh if they'd like. If you're very polite, and don't want to talk during the movie, you can engage in speaking about if afterwards. Babies is not a passive movie; it's an active movie.
THOMAS: It's 100% pure observation, because we were filming human beings who had no understanding of what the camera was. We stopped filming when the babies became conscious that they were being filmed. It wasn't just that they had begun walking; after having gotten used to them, they were looking at the lenses again and realizing that someone was observing them.
I believe we have created a story detached from people analyzing "What should I say" and "How should I behave?" and gotten something purely natural, like primary colors or primary elements.
ALAIN: It's the biggest smallest adventure ever.