My husband used to station a video camera near our gurgling baby, capturing an hour or so of what I considered excessive b-roll of her discovering her hand, exploring the texture of newspapers on a shelf with her tongue and fingers, or looking around with a glazed- over grimace from the over taxation of her developing brain and then whimpering for some attention.
These weren’t pastel-coated Kodak moments like taking those first steps, blowing out a Disney princess cake, or the splashy footage of a swim lesson. Nonetheless, my deeper half was fascinated with the mundane because it conveyed the anthropological human experience. This is where is all starts. And we are usually too busy to notice.
Apparently, this fascination and a desire for universal connection also drove French filmmaker, Thomas Balmes, whose documentary Babies offers a simultaneous bird’s eye (and sometimes fly’s eye) view of early child birthing and rearing among four cultures. Two of the women featured live close to nature in a tribal village in Namibia and a grassy plain in Mongolia and have experienced motherhood, while two from industrialized countries of Japan and the U.S. welcome their first children into the world.
The latter are hands-on mommies supported by their spouses, while we rarely see glimpses of the fathers in the third world settings – either because they refused to be filmed or because they are mostly out hunting and doing other manly things (i.e. napping and yapping) – while the matriarchy gathers, milks and nurtures the young. All of the families except for the African one have pet cats that seem to fill in for any nanny or grandparent, by lounging with or on the baby while the mother is otherwise occupied. Got to love cats.
In following these babies from birth to their first steps, the documentary attempts to redefine the nonfiction art form while linking humanity in the stages of life that are universal to all of us, namely the earliest yearnings stemming from innate survival instincts: food, shelter, warmth and love. There are no words spoken (Ã la Winged Migration) but the language is wholly familiar. Often, it speaks volumes about boredom.
Ponijao, who lives with her family near Opuwo, Namibia, spends a great deal of time sitting around with other babies, flies swarming her face, nothing to play with but a found bone or a playmate’s body parts. In one scene on a walk with other women and kids, her mother soothes her discontentment by simply bending down and extending an exposed boob for the baby to suck. Hey, it worked great for me, and it works great for her. Breast milk: the new mother’s helper!
Bayar lives with his family in Mongolia and is closer to nature than most, as cows graze and meander around him as he crawls around the plain, often left to his own devices when he isn’t being tormented by a jealous and also bored older brother. We root for the helpless, tightly swaddled infant who will never visit a Gymboree class or pull plastic treasures from a toy bin, but is somehow contented with what he knows. Like the other babies, he seems relatively well off with enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. His working mom is tough, his brother is mean, and his dad drove him home after birth strapped to his mom on the back of a crude motorcycle. No baby seat available, officers. But somehow you just know he will persevere and join his clan, working the herds in no time. Like many of us, if Bayar can survive a sadistic older brother, he can survive anything.
Mari, who lives with her family in Tokyo, Japan, is the epitome of the yuppie Beverly Hills baby, dressed to the nines in designer rompers and leg warmers and adored by her gentle parents who live in a typical Toyko high rise tower. Nothing here is lost in translation. She is escorted to Mommy and Me classes and caressed by her cat, and only appears distressed in one scene when frustrated by her inability to fit a peg block through a whole. That sort of challenge would excite my husband to no end, providing reels and reels of tape.
Hattie from San Francisco holds up a mirror to modern parents. While her mother seems the stereotypical Marin County hippie to a comical degree (naked hot tub soaking and Indian tribal songs at baby group bonding), this setting – like the Toyko apartment – makes us modern mommies wonder if we offered too much stimulus, creating humans that want and need endlessly to be happy. While the documentary makes no judgments about less is best, we come away understanding why our parents have a bone to pick with the “things” we have bought to entertain our children, and the schedules we have managed to fill their time. It all leaves little room for self discovery.
Perhaps that is why so many industrialized children need shrinks later on. “I never asked for all of that; I just wanted my parents to love me.” In some parts of our world, love is the only option. In all parts of the world, there is no substitute. Man cannot survive on Disney alone.
Images: Courtesy of Focus Features