By Willie Krischke — May 30, 2010
Last weekend, my wife called a babysitter and we went to see the French documentary “Babies” together. It felt odd to leave my own little baby with someone else and spend 79 minutes watching other babies. I think I am not the target audience for this movie. I couldn’t help but guess the ages of the babies onscreen, think about developmental stages, brain chemistry, parenting techniques, etc. I’m pretty sure that’s not the effect filmmaker Thomas Balmes was going for. So just keep in mind – I’m not the target audience here. Maybe you are.
I think this film would be great fun for a lot of people. Long distance grandparents, 14 year old girls, young (childless) couples, single twentysomethings, folks trying to get pregnant or adopt, perhaps even the parents of kids older than 5. If the idea of babysitting seems even a little fun to you, you’ll enjoy this movie. It’s like babysitting, but without all the work or responsibility. Call it babywatching.
We follow four kids from four different parts of the world through (roughly) the first year of their life. One is the daughter of upscale hippies in San Francisco. One lives in a dirt hut in Namibia. One in Mongolia, in a yurt surrounded by steppes and goats. And the last one in a high-rise in Tokyo. Balmes works hard to keep politics, or sociology, out of his movie. This is not about the challenges Namibia moms have to overcome, or about how rural babies are happier than urban babies, or anything like that. We hardly meet the parents. There are no talking heads, no interviews, no background info or voiceover or graphics. There are just babies. Four different, yet remarkably similar, babies.
Ponijao, in Namibia, breastfeeds alongside her brother, who teaches her how to balance things on her head as she walks. She plays with sticks and tries to catch flies. There are always several women nearby, chattering, and laughing. Hattie, in San Francisco, has a busy schedule. She goes to the park, to baby yoga class, to the pool, to a music class. She’s hardly ever home. Bayar, in Mongolia, never leaves home, and is alone a lot. She has an older brother who’s not sure he wants her around; at one point, he wheels her stroller out of the house and goes back inside, leaving her there until someone comes along and finds her. She also must dodge roosters, cows, and goats, who drink her bathwater and threaten to step on her at every turn. Mari, in Japan, has more toys that beep and flash than I can keep up with. Her father is a graphic designer who works from home and she likes to play with his gizmos.
The babies are generally content, healthy, happy and enjoyable. We watch them grow and develop. I’ve never had such a hard time observing good movie theater etiquette as I did while watching “Babies.” I wanted to talk to them, cheer them on, give them words. Maybe this is because I have a baby at home, I don’t know.
You will either find it enjoyable to watch babies on a big screen or you won’t. There’s not much to “Babies” beyond that. No in-depth insights or observations, no talking points or messages. Just babies. When I asked my wife what she thought of it, she said, “Well, it was fun – but it was a lot like watching someone else’s home videos.” Yes, exactly.