- Directed by Thomas Balmès
- Starring Ponijao, Mari, Hattie, Bayarjargal
- Classification: G
Really, it's a nature documentary, except that the topic is human nature and the subjects are the only humans on the planet whose behaviour is unaffected by the camera - yes, infants in those precious early months before consciousness becomes self-conscious, before they start crawling into the life-long prison of Me. Of course, as a world of snapshots attests, babies and photography are a heavenly match and here, for 79 fascinating minutes, heaven comes to the big screen. Simple title, simple premise: Follow four newborns, from four very different corners of the Earth, through the first year or so of their existence. Better yet, what is simple in theory proves sublime in practice. Observant and funny and thoughtful too, powered exclusively by vérité footage without a word of narration, Babies is William Blake's Infant Joy brought to rich cinematic life.
The deliverer is French director Thomas Balmès, who has judiciously picked the four locales to play to our modern prejudices - a crude thatched hut in a Namibian village, a high-rise apartment amid the neon of Tokyo, an unadorned yurt on the Mongolian steppes, an upper middle-class house in downtown San Francisco. In each place, a child is born, and to those who subscribe to the notion that birthplace is a cruel lottery, the winners seem obvious. The urban babies from the "first world" will enjoy advantages - superior nutrition, medical care, education - denied to the others. Sadly yet surely, their futures hold a brighter promise. Maybe so, but Balmès's interest is in the unfolding here and now, and the present tells a happier story filled with delightful surprises.
To that end, it helps that the sample is balanced. Despite the obvious environmental and cultural differences, the families are all relatively affluent within their social sphere - whether heated in a microwave or served cold in a communal pot, food is plentiful; whether the floor is polished parquet or mere dirt, shelter is adequate. In that sense, the children's starting point is roughly similar; consequently, as the camera moves briskly from site to site, the contrasts begin to fade and the commonalities emerge, shrinking the world and its newborns to a global village. There, a mother's love is palpable even before birth, signalled by the same universal gesture - a pregnant woman laying a hand on her protruding belly to gently rub the life within.
Among the babies, three girls and a boy, the shared characteristics are striking. Curiosity, the engine that drives their development, is innate within all. Mattel can satisfy it with an expensive set of coloured blocks, but so can two smooth stones and an empty plastic bottle. From older siblings, the babies accept teasing with patient equanimity (up to a point), just as the family cat accepts it from them (up to a point). And my how the tykes love to eat, especially the stuff they're not supposed to eat, serendipitously picked up off living-room rugs or dung-spattered fields.
Apparently, some clichés are true: Babies do sleep like babies, even when their bed is invaded by a strutting rooster. Also, warm water does seem to revive fond memories of the womb, and, on the enjoyment index, it doesn't appear to matter whether the bath is shared with a loving dad in a San Francisco tub or a thirsty goat in a Mongolian bucket.
Everywhere, imperfect parents can get distracted, whereupon accidents wait to happen - here an errant step from a cow's hoof, there a bumpy ride down a playground slide. Frustration abounds too. In the movie's longest sequence, the Tokyo girl learns to put a round peg in a round hole, repeats the achievement, then gets annoyed and starts wailing, understandably upset at her first glimpse into life's monotony. More inspiring is the children's "canonical babbling," which all sounds remarkably the same until it doesn't, setting out on separate journeys toward a mastery of the mother tongue.
As for the doc, eloquently free of narration, it speaks in the common language of silent film, conveying its universal axioms via a purely visual grammar that's universally understood. Show Babies to anyone anywhere and we'll all coo at the same cuteness, laugh the same laugh, shed the same tear, and smile the same smile when an infant thrills to the dawn of self-propulsion, crawling in a vast shopping mall with its glass canopy or over a vaster plain with its blue roof.
And, in the end, we will think the same thought, filled with wonder at the mundane miracle of Ponijao and Mari and Hattie and Bayarjargal, grateful for their shared potential yet anxious about their diverging prospects. The truth that Babies shows is easy, but the one it implies is hard: In our little village of peaceful treasures and warring plunder, of have and have-not, these beautiful children are today's gift; maybe, then, they should also be tomorrow's concern.