Checking In with Babies director Thomas Balmès
On November 9, 2010, Babies director Thomas Balmès was in Los Angles for a special screening of his movie hosted by the Los Angeles Film and TV Office, French Embassy. We took the opportunity to check in with the filmmaker and see what has happened since Babies opened in May 2010.
You were in Los Angeles last night for a screening of Babies hosted by the French Embassy at the Soho House in Los Angeles. How was it?
It was a really nice, casual event with great reactions. I was happy to meet Samuel Fuller’s widow and daughter.
In the seven months since Babies was released, I imagine you have been to quite a few screenings?
Yes, I’ve gone with the film to Berlin, Vietnam, Prague, Budapest. But I must tell you that none of these releases could compare with the American release, which was something special. And not only because of the size of it. I think that the openness of the American critics and people to see something different made its reception fantastic.
What were the different receptions of the film?
In Hanoi, it was great to be in such a different culture, and have people coming––like in America––to the film with their babies. In Budapest, I had a very deep philosophical discussion with some journalists about the film. One of them really seemed to read between the lines to get that you could read this film as a metaphysical tale about the craziness of the world we live in. It is always nice when people understand what you have been trying to do and can relate it to it. The guy was also a philosophy teacher––and my father was a philosophy teacher––and so we talked about the film and philosophy. That was an unexpected pleasure.
You’ve had a lot of time to talk to people and re-watch the film. What do you think now about the film you released back in May?
The more time goes by, I find that the film is much closer to my previous work than what I originally thought. It is interesting to see. But my sense of the film is always changing. When I originally did interviews with journalists about the film, I often repeated the same story. But then the more I met journalists from different backgrounds, I found I could alter my description of what the film was, depending on who was in front of me. In the process, I realized that the film could be understood in different ways, and in different countries, the reception kept changing. In France, for example, some people saw it as a kind of postcard with cute babies and nothing else––just one cute baby after another. In other places, they saw the film being about our changing relationship with our environment. In other places, it was about our relationship with materialistic stuff. I love that this film does not have one meaning, but can have several different ones.
How has it been received as a documentary?
This is a thing. If you look at the top 20 documentaries in the United States, there is nothing that looks close to what is specific about Babies. They are called documentaries but they are as different from Babies as wine and water. Babies is perhaps the clearest, simplest documentary form you can find. I went there and observed and waited and sat and framed, doing all of this with no manipulation of the subject. There is not a single scene from Babies that I could have written on a piece of paper and been able to find money to produce it. Every shot was a surprise. The scenes in the film are so unique and will probably never happen again. You will never again have a baby in Mongolia in his bath and then have a goat come up and drink water out of it.
How did its simplicity, especially in having no language, effect its reception?
I met some people in the States who told me they brought their grandmother to see Babies. The grandmother, who was from China and didn’t speak English, had not only never seen a documentary, but hadn’t seen any films at all. Almost anyone from almost any age can see the film all over the world. At the other end of the spectrum, I was told by a journalist here in Los Angeles that he had showed the film to his three-month-old baby, who was mesmerized, never moving around during the film’s 90 minutes. Here is a film that you can show to 90-year-old Chinese woman living in America and not speaking a word of English and to a three-month-old baby––and they are both going to enjoy it.
How did parents receive it?
People who go and see the film for the baby aspect never get disappointed at all. They can relate to their own kids and there is only a positive type of feedback for getting that. What is really interesting is how many people who are not into the “baby” thing or the parenting aspect who enjoy the film because of its comedy aspect. I having been meeting with a 22-year-old woman for work and she told me how she saw it like maybe three times when she was depressed, or after a long day at work. She would go see the film to feel a little bit less depressed. It is like a sort of medication that some people have been using. She doesn’t have a child and she is not planning on having one. She just felt that it gave her a great energy. I love that.
What is happening with the different families?
I get more news from the American and Japanese families than from the Mongolian and Namibian ones. The film was released in Mongolia, which is very unusual since I think there are only two theaters in the whole country. Babies did very well in Ulan Bator, and the whole Mongolian family was invited for the first screening there. They are becoming small stars in Mongolia. The film stayed in the theater there for many weeks, which I was very proud of.
Will you keep following the kids?
The families are ready to do a sequel in a few years. There has been a lot of interest in checking in on the kids. It would be interesting to do. I don’t know when would be the right time to do it. Getting into school would be fascinating. I don’t know.
How did the release affect you as a filmmaker or as a one-time baby/now-adult?
I think that it has really affected me as a father. It has really made me think about my relationship with my own kids. I recognize myself all the time in the American father and the Japanese father. So I am trying to spend much more time with my kids. I got to spend two months in a row with them this summer, which is something that has never happened before. And that was great. This film was a weird experience. James [Schamus, the CEO of Focus Features] always said this is the weirdest film we have distributed. And it is the weirdest thing that I have been doing too. It has been nearly five years of my life, in between the planning, shooting, editing, distribution and all that. So I have to get back to another project, but it is kind of complicated after such a long commitment.