Babies Bébé(s))

Robin Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Robin Clifford 

Laura Clifford of Reeling Reviews
Laura Clifford 

From four corners of the world - Namibia in Africa, Mongolia, Japan and the US – comes “Babies,” the year in a life story of four baby girls, Ponijao, Bayar, Mari and Hattie. Documaker Thomas Balmes travels to these far-flung places and places his cameras to objectively document and observe this critical first year of life.

I have never had kids and have always felt uncomfortable, and a bit squeamish, when around babies so, to me, “Babies” is more like a scary movie. And, you are inundated with images of babies, relentlessly, for what seemed an interminable 79 minutes.

Babies being born – I do not understand how people can even think the birthing process is beautiful. Babies breast feeding, lots of breastfeeding. Babies lying around making unintelligible sounds. Babies crying, lots and lots of crying – a sound that makes me cringe. Babies being bullied by older brothers. Babies getting baths. Babies sleeping. Babies playing with pets, very tolerant pets. Babies crawling. Babies first words. Babies falling, a great deal. Babies first steps. Babies first birthdays. As I said, a very scary movie.

I do not have a clue what the target audience “Babies” is aimed at – maybe, young parents who love documentary films? There must be million of them out there chomping at the bit to see a virtually silent, ambient sound only, movie about babies doing disgusting things. I think not. There is some nice landscape photography, particularly of the Mongolian steppes. Looks are not everything, though. I give it a D.


In four corners of the globe - Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco - four children are born and French director Thomas Balmes shot four hundred hours of film over two years to document these "Babies."

This is a great concept, which could easily have gone the way of Michael Apted's "Up" series, with a smart marketing team releasing the film in the U.S. right in time for Mother's Day.  But be forewarned - watching "Babies," is, for the most part, excruciatingly boring, like watching some stranger's home videos of his kid.  Balmes does little to shape his material, giving it only the loosest of structure (kids playing, kids trying to stand up, etc.), and doesn't provide any cultural insights of note.

The film's opening sequence is one of its best.  Ponijao, the Namibian baby, sits next to her older brother, both using rocks to grind something, but the older brother takes possession of the empty plastic bottle between them and Ponijao cries.  (We will witness more bratty older brother behavior in Mongolia.) Then Balmes begins to bounce around to beginnings.  Bayarjargal is born in a Bayanchandmani hospital, a very pregnant Seiko and her husband Fumito prepare for birth in Tokyo, Hattie is a preemie in San Francisco and Tarererua paints her extended belly with red ochre.  (That last sequence is a bit of a cheat, Balmes implying that the Namibian mother will be giving birth in her hut when the production provided money and medical assistance in return for filming rights.)

There is no narration, no title cards to explain what we are seeing.  Balmes doesn't edit among his four locations in any particular sequence.  There are a few new wavy musical numbers.  For the most part, the film has been nicely shot.  But the whole thing is just so random.  Sure, we note that parents in Tokyo and San Francisco tend to gang together where the Namibians and Mongolians do not, but that has as much to do with city vs. rural life as it does to culture.  Balmes makes one specific point when he cuts from a scene of Ponijao chewing on a bone picked up from the dirt to Hattie on a carpet that is being vacuumed, but this edit is a real exception.  In one quick scene we see Bayar's brother trying to get his tricycle unstuck and wonder why we're even seeing this if Bayar isn't in the shot.  Is this the best four hundred hours had to offer?

Serendipity descends on Balmes's documentary just once, in Tokyo, as we watch Mari, seated among many toys, turn from one to the next with bouts of boredom tantrums in between.  It's a funny bit, but it's not enough.  Culturally, Namibia proves the most interesting place.  Watching Tarererua 'cut' her baby's hair with a knife in quick, clean strokes is a bit unsettling for a Westerner.  This is also the only location where the child's father is never seen.

"Babies" is a cinematic indulgence which only its makers and participants could love.  You can learn more about children in different cultures by watching films made by their own.

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