Babies is a visually stunning, intellectually intriguing and emotionally moving French documentary not quite as well-known (it grossed less in the box office and won no Academy Award), but more potentially appealing than March of the Penguins. Babies is both intimate and familiar; it follows a year in the life of four babies, whose names we know, homes we enter, successes which we celebrate and frustrations with which we empathize. Even though Hattie is from San Francisco, Ponijao is from Namibia, Bayarjargal is from Mongolia and Mari is from Tokyo, they are unmistakably, universally all things baby. Their environments might be different and their parents’ methods might be different but they do the same things: fight with peers over toys, seek comfort in their mothers’ bosoms, express curiosity about pets, explore and learn.
Hattie and Mari’s experiences are very similar, probably because they are both from First World, urban environments. Although none of the families are notably affluent or impoverished, they have advantages – if you want to call them that – over Ponijao and Bayarjargal, who live in rural Developing or Third World nations. However, through ingenious juxtaposition of similar scenes the film subtly conveys the idea that perhaps, despite outward circumstances, babies grow up on a more or less equal playing field (sometimes literally, since Bayarjargal’s play yard is his family’s entire cattle farm). It suggests that nature, not nurture, is the domineering factor in child development. One minute we might note that Bayargargal seems to be alone quite a lot or bullied by his older sibling and yet he is undeterred in his exploration and extremely happy in his discoveries. In the next scene, we might be surprised that Mari is surrounded by toys and yet is frustrated by every single one of them after one attempt at making them work. This particular series of events might even lead one to conclude that all the doting the First World babies get is more harmful than good, but I think that would be reading into things a bit too far.
My companion viewer did note that Hattie and Mari are disadvantaged in regards to socialization. Their parents need to take them to various music classes and play dates in order for them to be around peers, but Bayarjargal at least has his older sibling. Ponijao has the best family/community life, with not one, but two women, nearby and what seems like a dozen playmates in the village children. In his village, the kids look out for one another and for the most part get along very well. Maybe it doesn’t take a village to raise a child, but it does seem like a pretty good idea.
Being accustomed to certain things – particularly a certain level of cleanliness – I will interject that considering the options from every angle, I would always prefer to raise my children in a First World country, thankyouverymuch. But that doesn’t mean I didn’t learn a great deal from how other parents raise their kids. Mainly, it’s a relief that no matter my parenting style or mistakes, it’s likely that all you really need is love.
This film is not only interesting to moms-who-love-babies or obsess about every detail but enjoyable for the whole family.* My husband discussed it with me and my 2 ½ year old son was interested the entire length of the film making it the first full length feature film he’s watched start to finish. Personally, I found it so enthralling that a second viewing only kindled a desire to watch it a third time and perhaps a fourth and almost every day of my life. Though that may seem like quite an overstatement, I’m not quite sure it is. Since there is no interviewing, narration or English subtitles, every piece of information, every feeling is conveyed visually or tonally. I could become an obsessed observer, like an anthropology student. At the very least, it has become one of my favorite films in any genre.
Have you seen Babies? What did you think?
*I suppose I should throw in a disclaimer here. Uncle Orson disagrees with me because of the potential problem of parents with bare nursing breasts and what I can only guess to be his discomfort with undiapered baby boys. I suppose it has to do with the age of your children and parenting approach.