The most striking thing about "Babies" isn't any one image or moment, although a fair number are arresting. It's how moviegoers react to the film as a whole.
I saw Thomas Balmes' documentary chronicling a year in the lives of four infants from four countries in regular release this past Saturday night in a packed lower Manhattan theater.
Amazingly, for 79 minutes and change, a couple of hundred paying customers in one of the world's least patient cities gave "Babies" their undivided attention.
A quick survey of friends in other states who also saw "Babies" over the weekend…confirmed this was not an isolated response. People are riveted by this movie in a way that they most assuredly would not be riveted by real-life babies, unless said babies were 1) related to them, 2) professionally entrusted to their care, or 3) keeping the entire friggin' block awake with their colicky bleating.
The pin-drop silence continues throughout the movie's running time, punctuated only by expected, appropriate reactions: laughter, awwwws, and sotto-voiced conversations between parents and formula-fed tots about what, exactly, that infant is doing with mommy's booby.
I don't think the movie's communion with audiences can be explained by its subject matter, its nurturing by deep-pocketed distributor Focus Features, or even its appealing trailer, which doubled as a viral video. (Though promoters of all kinds should note how that trailer spread. As experts told an audience at a South by Southwest panel on how to make a successful viral video, "Most videos that go viral spread happiness.") Yes, marketing and promotion drive people to the box office. But once viewers take their seats, they either like the movie or they don't. Period.
I don't think the movie's power owes to any message, either. Balmes has explained "Babies" as a One World parable whose intent is to transcend cultural and geographical barriers and show that people are people and babies are babies. The film follows four children: Mari, raised amid the vertical ice cube trays of Tokyo; Bayar, a rural Mongolian whose childhood pets include chickens and goats; Ponijao, a Namibian who grows up in a dusty, fly-strewn village; and Hattie, born to New Age yuppies in San Francisco. Their parents are loving but somewhat abstract presences, featured as their offspring might dimly perceive them, as sources of nourishment, shelter and comfort. Balmes achieves his kumbaya-flavored ambition and then some…But even if Balmes' mission were a deep and urgent one, most moviegoers would dismiss it, rightly, as the cinematic version of a plate of boiled spinach.
It's not the message that matters. It's the filmmaking.
From Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock to Alex Gibney and Errol Morris, the predominant nonfiction film aesthetic is some version of go-go-go-and-never-let-up. It's montage-driven style that seeks to hold one's attention by any means necessary: a flurry of quick-cut images and busy graphics, title cards and stylish reenactments, narration and music (doom synth, pop tunes, Philip Glass). It's nonfiction filmmaking as Ed Sullivan-style plate spinning: razzle-dazzle.
Sometimes this style is dramatically appropriate -- and emotionally involving, and intellectually stimulating -- and sometimes it isn't. Either way it's a far cry from the lo-fi aesthetic of "Babies."
Balmes and his collaborators have gone against the grain of recent documentary film and reached back in time -- way back -- for inspiration. Like another current, sensationally effective, picture-and-sound-driven documentary by French filmmakers, "Disney's Oceans"…Balmes has returned to the early years of motion pictures, a time when people were still thrilled by the very idea of cinema as a window that revealed other places, other lives.
"This is the most real documentary I've ever done, the closest I've ever gotten to pure documentary," Balmes told the New York Times. "Most documentaries are produced like feature films, and that kills [their] specificity. But with this one there was no voice-over, no script. It's just real life."
This kind of filmmaking is easier to describe than it is to do, and "Babies" is a fine example of how to do it. The movie asks the audience to sit in the dark and absorb not just the image of a particular baby but also the ambience of the living room or bedroom, country road or city street that serves as backdrop for moments in the baby's development. It then asks us to ponder the fact that these babies are less than a year old and strongly rooted in the specific daily experience of life in four very different parts of the world, yet we can already see their personalities not so much taking shape as emerging, like intricate sculptures that were buried in the soil a long time ago and are just now being unearthed.
There's nothing Hollywood or Gerber about Babies. But it will be hard to watch this extraordinary film and its adorable stars without a goofy smile.
This observant documentary offers an up-close-and-personal glimpse of four babies from vastly different cultures in their first year of life. It's no home video. The photography is stunning, and Bruno Coulais' music adds just the right soundtrack to this intriguing visual diary. Director Thomas Balmès has a light touch capturing the captivating moments of early life. It's not a traditional documentary; there's no narration, subtitles or scientific information imparted. There's far more gurgling and cooing than dialogue.
The developmental similarities are there, but it's the differences in behavior and circumstances that jump out. We meet the easygoing Ponijao, her mother and other members of her Himba tribe outside her family's dirt hut in Namibia. Curious Bayarjargal lives with his parents and siblings and a herd of cattle on their farm in remote Mongolia. Mari has a toy-filled existence in a small apartment with her parents in Tokyo. Hattie lives a pampered American life in San Francisco with parents. She is taken to baby yoga, and a book titled No Hitting sits prominently on a bookshelf. Ponijao and other tribal children share easily, Bayarjargal and his brother squabble, but their parents generally let them work it out. Mari doesn't have as much chance to interact with other babies, but gets frustrated by the bevy of educational toys set out to amuse her.
Thomas Balmes’ “Babies” is a deeply ingenious film that takes the most bare-bones concept and derives exemplary moments of cinema and insights into the nature of humanity from it.
Balmes and company filmed the first years of four babies lives: little girls from San Francisco, Tokyo and a Namibian village, and a boy from the plains of Mongolia. In tracking the development and environments of this quartet of infants, the film opens windows on to the gradual formation of human consciousness; the universal concepts of home, mother, family and household; the relationship of the individual to the culture into which he or she is born; the connection of humans to pets, clothes, food, music, and bodily functions; and much, much more.
Our little Mongol lad, for instance, has a sadistic older brother but discovers, in a remarkable sequence, that crying out about the bigger boy’s abuses brings mommy’s wrath on the wrongdoer (in another scene, big brother frames the tot for making a mess, and another, more bitter lesson, is learned). In San Francisco, a girl raised with a comical excess of material goods and parental caution discovers, to her horror, that the nib at the end of a banana isn’t as yummy as the rest of it. In Tokyo, frustration with a simple stacking toy leads to a tantrum worthy of an operatic diva. In Namibia, children casually play in mud and dirt and poop and nurse with seemingly any mom in the village, and nobody calls in an ambulance or child services or a personal injury lawyer.
The French globe-trotting documentarian Thomas Balmes has taken up a delicate and treacherous assignment in his new film. Fanning out around the world - to the plains of Mongolia, the dusty grasslands of Namibia, the high rises of Tokyo and the streets of San Francisco - Mr. Balmes and his crew set out, about three years ago, to probe a network of mysterious creatures who speak a common idiom barely comprehensible to the rest of us. The film's subjects are hard to understand and nearly impossible to resist. They project weakness and innocence, yet they also possess almost terrifying powers. And they are just so gosh-darn cute!
Frankly, it's hard to know just what to say about "Babies," which episodically chronicles the first year in the lives of four far-flung infants. "Awwwwww" would be a start and will no doubt be the sound you hear most frequently from the patrons around you, along with an occasional "ewwww," a stray gasp of concern or disapproval - you know how anxious and judgmental parents can be - and intermittent laughter. If you have read any child-rearing manuals (or just stared guiltily at a bedside stack of them while dragging yourself toward the squalling bundle of wee-hours need in the next room), "Babies" may be both a puzzle and a relief.
Watch a baby for a while and chances are you'll be entertained. Multiply that times four and you have Babies, a documentary as funny, charming and un-self-conscious as its subjects.
The French movie's only message is that infants around the world are the same, whether they're growing up on a dirt floor in Namibia, a glorified tent in Mongolia or more modern housing in Tokyo or San Francisco.
Cutting back and forth between the lives of these four infants as they move from first breaths to first steps, director Thomas Balmes doesn't try to impart any other lessons – something society will do to them, as it does to all of us, soon enough. Instead, he's content to observe Ponijao, Mari, Bayar and Hattie with rapt attention, like a nature film on PBS.
Balmes achieves that focus with a minimalist approach that avoids many potential pitfalls. Babies features no narration, no interviews and only a little overheard dialogue from the title characters' parents. Commentary would have ruined the documentary, turning it into another imposing sociological study.
In fact, the director doesn't even bother with dividing Babies into chapters, using subtitles or any other audience hand-holding or framing devices that probably would have been required if the film were American-made. He doesn't even get caught up with thematically organizing their activities.
Instead of telling us about their experiences, Balmes simply shoots them at their level, close to the ground, showing them discovering themselves and the environments they inhabit. It's a wise choice as he's rewarded with an audience as engaged as his camera, ready to react to every behavioral nuance.
"Babies" might be the first post-YouTube documentary. With no narration, explanatory text or conventional narrative structure, it invites viewers simply to watch and revel in things doing their thing -- or in this case, babies being babies.
A group portrait of infants coming of age in Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and San Francisco, "Babies" is a mesmerizing and weirdly manipulative experience, combining wide-eyed innocence and shrewd cultural commentary as it chronicles the folkways and familial rites of four starkly different societies.
While two affluent couples in Tokyo and San Francisco raise their daughters with plenty of age-appropriate accouterments and New Age earnestness, a little boy on the Mongolian steppe shares his bath water with a goat, and a girl growing up in a tiny African village learns how to pound red clay from the dirt. But "Babies" resolutely refuses to judge, at least explicitly, instead suggesting that privilege and deprivation -- at least by Western standards -- are relative.
Because of my interest in parenting and families, I was recently invited to a screening of "Babies," a documentary produced by Focus Features.* French filmmaker Thomas Balmes and his French producer, Alain Chabat, tracked four babies in four different countries from birth to about 18 months. Watching a wordless 79 minutes of film about babies from around the globe doesn't sound like something you would rush out to see. You would make a mistake if you miss it.
"Babies" is gripping, adorable, often times funny, and always exquisite. The families live in economically and socially diverse countries: Japan, Namibia, Mongolia, and the United States. In the most beautiful ways, "Babies" underscores that having and raising a child is a universal experience whether you live in "the bush" or in an apartment overlooking San Francisco Bay.
Parents respond in much the same manner to their growing offspring; the babies act and react in strikingly similar ways. When one baby attempts to take a plastic bottle from his older sibling, the sibling strikes back; the crying and vying for supremacy rings true for anyone anywhere who has watched two young children at play. We witness this sibling rivalry in a tribal village in Opuwo, Namibia.