Foreign & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video ">
Reviews of Recent Independent, Foreign, & Documentary Films in Theaters and DVD/Home Video
Yeah, babies are cute, but it is not just because the four featured infants are adorable that Babies is worth seeing. It is because their first year of life telescopes thousands of years of evolution before our eyes.
With no narration or subtitles and only bare on-screen identification, we meet four babies (a couple right from birth) and their families from the far distant points of the globe: Ponijao in the dry African desert of Namibia; Bayarjargal in a nomad’s yurt on the wide plateaus of Mongolia; Mari high above downtown Tokyo; and Hattie in a San Francisco home. Director Thomas Balmès’s wife in France was pregnant with their third child during the filming in 2006, but she put the kibosh on including her family in a “wildlife film with human babies,” as Balmès describes his technique. (Each family agreed to participate in exchange for payments towards their children’s future education.)
What he observes, frequently in long takes, are the first key milestones of human development, and this documentary will be essential viewing in academic courses on psychology, biology, and anthropology. It is absolutely fascinating to see how universal and instinctual those genetic markers are, beginning from subtle communication with mothers to get fed and to be nurtured. While each much-beloved little person develops at a different pace, what clearly comes across is humans’ overwhelming urge to be curious, independent, and mobile regardless of environment and parenting styles.
That humans are innately social beings leads to some of the most amusing encounters with the other living things around them. Each baby reacts as viscerally to control animals, like Adam in the King James Bible, giving “names to all cattle, and to the fowl of the air, and to every beast of the field.” The Namibian and Mongolian babies happen to be raised with close siblings or cousins (in Namibia, the mother is so connected to her older sister that they share nursing), which means more eyes to watch over them and more incitements to explore other bodies and homes. The urban babies are necessarily in more restricted environs, where the parents put an early premium on communication over mobility. The Japanese baby’s first year is even more structured around organized play dates and educational activities than the American’s, whose mom is glimpsed anxiously checking parenting manuals.
But each baby is powerfully motivated (or call it genetically programmed) to learn to direct their movements and get over and up. Seeing their frustration with each determined attempt to reach their next goal (edited for parallelism), the audience cheers each exhilarating, step-by-step accomplishment. Hey, you try standing up for the first time on the steppes with the wind and a herd of goats trying to knock you down! The climax comes as each child achieves walking and talking, just stopping short of Stanley Kubrick’s ta-da-boom-boom moment in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where primitive man discovers tools and turns them into weapons.
When, many years ago, I
went running to my mother to announce that my younger brother took his
first step, she shrugged “Yeah, they do that.” Well, yeah, they do, but
Babies is still enthralling. Nora Lee