Thomas Balmes' Babies (2010) is charming entertainment, of that there's no doubt. Four charismatic little tykes, from their birth to their first year of existence howl and crawl and pee their way through a large and often bewildering world, and you follow them with little introduction or explanation, other than titles at film's start that give us their names (Ponijao, who lives in Opuwo, Namibia; Bayar, who lives in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Mari, who lives in Tokyo, Japan; and Hattie, who lives in San Francisco, the United States). There's an admirable simplicity to the concept, a purity that you can't at one level help but admire: no commentary, no politics, no social observation, just babies, trying to live one day at a time.
The film begins with stark differences: Ponijao's mother rubs a red powder she ground herself on her belly, and that's pretty much all she does by way of preparation; Bayar's mother takes their child home for the first time, and she has to struggle to sling her leg across her husband's bike; Mari and Hattie, on the other hand, enjoy the last word in modern medical technology when being delivered, and you can't help but feel that if a fly dared to show its bacteria-infested face in their presence some laser defense protocol would fry it to cinders.
Each family pays a price for their choice of lifestyle (though you wonder if Bayar and Ponijao and their parents had much choice about their lifestyles). Bayar and Ponijao were born and live under the most primitive conditions (Bayar less so--you see a satellite dish standing beside Bayar's family yurt), and are entirely comfortable with sharing living space with roosters and goats and cows; Hattie and Mari do meet (and mash, and maul) the occasional cat, but brought near larger animals--a gorilla, say, or a tiger in a zoo--they scream their heads off. Possibly they're bored, or for some reason uncomfortable, but I'm guessing the presence of huge creatures you've never seen before glaring at you as if you were their next meal probably didn't help their dispositions. Likewise, you can shudder with dismay at the level of hygiene practiced--Ponijao, having no diaper, simply squirts fecal matter on her mother's knee who, just as nonchalantly, scrapes it off with a corn cob. But Ponijao also gets to sit in a river stream and dip her face in its water; she gets to kiss a dog full in the mouth, lolling tongue and all. I don't know if it's me or a bias in Balmes' choices in assembling his footage, but on the whole Ponijao seems to be enjoying the lion's share of fun and adventure. Bayar isn't close behind--he gets to step on a goat's face, and when a herd of cows approaches, has a moment of panic where he can't decide if he wants to stay atop the tub he's sitting on, climb down and crawl away, or teeter precariously in between (no that doesn't sound like fun, but it's definitely not boring).
One can imagine all the parents watching this on DVD and exclaiming "Yuck!" or "Watch out!" Part of the appeal of the film is in observing these youths learn how to handle their environments as best they can, however they can (it helps to remember that exposure to bacteria and dirt and grime are part of growing up, and that a too-sanitary environment leaves a child relatively helpless and unprepared). Again it might be me, or the filmmaker's bias, but Ponijao comes out all right--she's had a rough-and-tumble physical education, and her sense of balance (as you see towards the end) develops just fine, perhaps even sooner than the others. Bayar--don't cry for him; he's gotten a roll of toilet paper and is having a ball with it, all over the yurt's floor. I think it's telling that the film's funniest moment is at the expense of Mari--she tries to fit a pole in the hole of a toy and when this doesn't work, throws a fit worthy of James Cameron ("I want my quarter of a billion dollars and I want it NOW! NOW! NOW!"). Balmes has his biases, and while I'm sympathetic (what's wrong with scraping off crap with a corncob?), it does throw the nobility of his enterprise into questionable light.
The best one can say of the film is that it looks gorgeous: the differing tints and hues and most of all texture of baby skin--their smoothness, moistness, oiliness, the rolls of fat, the dewy fur--are vividly captured. Of the locations, the most memorable has to be Mongolia--seeing Bayar stand against that magnificent brilliant blue sky, that's a moment worth taking with you out the theater. The worst one can say of the picture is that it has a certain callowness, a playing for laughs, a safeness and benignity that frankly, undermines its verite ambitions. Why go through all this effort to film four babies from four corners of the Earth when the only message you come away with is "babies are happy, babies have fun, babies round the world are basically one?" There's nothing here that we don't already know, though there is much that is fresh to the eye and ear; the premise and execution could have been so much better, perhaps even great (include the parents' point of view, perhaps?), that you feel as frustrated as Mari, trying to jam her poor plastic pole into that poor plastic disc.
First published in Businessworld, 10.21.10