Over the years, documentaries have been made on myriad subjects: fad diets, to religion, major historical events, and predictions of the world’s agricultural future.
In this charming documentary from French filmmaker, Thomas Balmès, however, we get a new subject, filmed in a delightful new way: babies. The filmmaker and his crew follow four infants from different parts of the globe from birth, for the first year of their lives. The subjects of this adorable film are Ponijao from Opuwo, Namibia, Mari from Tokyo, Japan, Hattie, from San Francisco, U.S., and the only boy of the bunch, Bayar (Bayarjargal) from Bayanchandmani, Mongolia.
From birth, we see how different these children’s lives are, and get a glimpse at how different they will continue to be. Ponijao is born in her village’s birthing hut, her mother surrounded by the other women who help and encourage her. Bayar is born in a bare-bones but sterile hospital, and is immediately very tightly swaddled. Hattie is born in a state-of-the-art medical facility, which, compared to the birth of the previous two children, seems incredibly loud, cluttered, and intrusive. Due to what I’m assuming are cultural norms, Mari’s name is written underneath her feet at the hospital, a great way to prevent being switched at birth!
As the infants develop, we see the impact that their different environments and the parenting styles of their caregivers has had on them. Ponijao and Bayar are surrounded by fresh air, fresh water, and parents who don’t coddle them from dirt, germs, and exploration. Ponijao, and Bayar, once his swaddling days are done, explore the plains and the mountains, respectively, and interact with those around them gleefully. Ponijao is also looked after by various girls in the tribe and nursed by women other than her mother, which might account for her gregariousness, and the fact that she is never sick even once that entire year. Perhaps because their culture doesn’t have ridiculous societal rules about the feminine body, we see the breasts of Ponijao’s mother and the other women of their tribe in a completely non-sexual way.
Bayar’s mother works hard on the family’s land and spends the least amount of time with her son as a result. He’s also the only baby with an older brother, and is terrorized by said brother whenever he thinks his mother and the film crew aren’t watching, but the baby retains a sunny disposition regardless. Although Bayar doesn’t develop in some ways as quickly as the girls, he is the first baby seen able to feed himself “adult” food, drinking a bowl of soup unassisted. He is also able to navigate safely around various farm animals.
Hattie’s parents live in a very clean home, but she has a runny nose for the majority of the film, and even though she is in a few play groups, seems quite bored with the other children. The fact that when they’re home, her parents often read books on parenting while she’s a few feet away, playing alone, may have something to do with that. Despite this, Hattie is quiet and good-natured, and enjoys playing with the family cat. Mari is in pre-school within months and displays a very quick aptitude. Lavished with the best toys and gadgets by her parents, Mari is a very fashionable baby, and even her tantrums are hilarious (one of them resulted in poor Mari becoming a meme). Though Mari’s father works hard, he is seen quite often with his daughter, who enjoys playing with blank discs, tearing up his work documents, and bathing with him in the hot springs.
As the children get older, we see how the lifestyles of their communities influences their developing personalities, but ultimately, they are all babies, and have more in common than anything else. They all love positive attention, small animals, cuddling with their parents, and exploring their homes. Although these children hadn’t met and will probably never meet, as we watch them learn and grow, they seem like a strange, beautiful family. Their little faces stay with you long afterward, and I eagerly await a sequel (perhaps “Kids” or “Pre-Teens”?).
Babies doesn’t try to push some “We are the world” narrative but rather works to highlight both the commonalities and the unique, and equally valid, differences of these various communities. Babies is filmed with the children as the focal point and everything else in blurred periphery. We don’t hear any clear conversations among the adults, and we neither know nor care what they’re doing or talking about as we join in the debut of lives which have the potential to one day shape history
I give this one 4 stars.