Babies (Review)

Documentary looks at different ways to rear newborns around the world

May 4, 2010 at 2:06 pm

Thomas Balmes’ documentary Babies takes viewers on a global cross-cultural journey inside the experiences of four newborns from Namibia to Mongolia to Tokyo to San Francisco. Trailers for the film have focused on the humorous interplay between one of the titular babies, Ponijao from Namibia (pictured), who sits next to a slightly older baby banging rocks together.

The older baby (it's never clear whether the child is an actual sibling or just one of several children being raised in the collective care of the village women) reaches out for an empty plastic bottle to add to their play, which leads the two into a brief battle for the bottle. Kicking, screaming, biting and a bit of hair pulling ensue as we watch and laugh. But that sequence sets up the critical question that will likely dog American audiences as they settle in for the rest of the film.

We're encouraged to take in these four uniquely different cultural approaches to early child-rearing, which are offered with little or no real commentary. Three of the four scenarios unfold in foreign languages, and Balmes refuses to translate any of the exchanges. We're forced to watch, to focus on only what we see.

Could we imagine, from our terribly hands-on parental perspectives (guided by an ever-expanding library of self-help manuals that should cause us to question how previous generations were ever able to survive without such step-by-step assistance), allowing two young children to engage in such behavior without running interference? What kinds of (dangerous and harmless) lessons are taught through such hands-off means?

As the film progresses, more examples unspool before us, and Western audiences likely will find other points to quibble over, such as each family’s position on breastfeeding. From bottles to breasts — and there are breasts everywhere — the film casts its neutral view on the subject, daring us to determine how we might feel about the issue.

In light of the local campaign to encourage mothers to breastfeed, Babies seems to argue that it's certainly a natural part of early development but is just one option. Each mother in each situation handles it differently, and we would be wise to step back and realize that these four babies (and their families) aren't representatives of their cultures as much as we might like for them to be. They're simply four individual units.

Of course, for even the most objective, certain conclusions are unavoidable. The film, while focusing most of its attention on the babies, documents interactions within the family unit and serves to illustrate a seemingly universal dynamic: the lack of truly meaningful and persistent engagement from the fathers. Male figures are completely absent in Namibia, while in each of the other locales the fathers remain largely on the periphery.

The fathers in Mongolia and Tokyo are workingmen in vastly different fields who take time away from labor. But that time is never as exclusively devoted to care and nurturing as the mother’s. In the San Francisco installment, the father appears more invested as a nurturing presence, helping to maintain the notion that Western family unit follows the “book” more closely.

As a film, Babies doesn’t resort to tricks to entertain and engage us, allowing the babies and the situations to speak for themselves. There doesn’t ever appear to be an overarching narrative compelling the movement from location to location.

It could be argued that we're simply moving to the rhythms of new-born life, discovering the world and its unique systems of care and that we shouldn’t draw any other conclusions. Grade: B

Opens May 7. Check out theaters and show times, see more photos from the film and get theater details here.