Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Babies (dir. Thomas Balmès, 2009)

My wife and I watched the documentary Babies. As parents of a toddler there were lots of knowing chuckles and little moments that reminded us of the past year and a half.

French director Thomas Balmès and his team (make no mistake it took a team to pull this off) filmed four babies, in four different locales, from birth to first steps. The result is this beguiling 80-minute film. Babies stars Ponijao of Namibia, Bayar of Mongolia, Mari of Tokyo, and Hattie of San Francisco. Balmès surely chose these locales for the stark contrasts they produce, from rural to urban, primitive to modern. The parents of this quartet are supporting characters about which we learn nothing beyond what we observe. Much of the time they aren't present at all. Indeed the most revealing moments are when the babies are left to their own devices, sometimes shockingly so to our overprotective parent eyes. By keeping his cameras at baby-level Balmès creates a portrait of emerging awareness. This film should dispel any doubt that baby humans have a rich interior life.

Though Babies isn't primarily about parenting it reminded me what a culturally conditioned activity raising children is. In one scene little Ponijao evacuates on his mama's leg as she nurses him (diapers are non-existent in this society). She calmly scrapes the feces off with a corncob and rubs some dust over the spot. No harm, no foul. Ironies abound. In another scene Hattie and her papa sit in a circle with other parents and children as an instructor sings "the earth is our mother, she will take care of us." (Pardon the stereotype, but that's so San Francisco!) However, Hattie spends most of her life indoors shielded from the vicissitudes of Mother Earth by the conveniences of affluent Western society. Her parents really don't believe that the earth will take care of her. Meanwhile Ponijao literally grows up in the earth, playing in the dirt and drinking from a stream, while Bayar roams among the cows and goats beneath brilliant Mongolian skies. The two boys are closer to the land than Hattie or fellow urbanite Mari will ever be.

All four of Balmès subjects seem to be blessed with parents that love and care for them, though the way that works out in practice can be very different. By Western standards Ponijao lives in poverty, but if skin-to-skin contact and sense of community is a measure of childhood well-being then Ponijao is the richest of the four. We never see him alone. As an infant he's always reclining on his mother, and he's surrounded by siblings and/or other children of the village. In this culture it does take a village to raise a child. On the other hand Mari is growing up in one of the most densely populated and technologically advanced areas of the planet (Tokyo), but the sense of isolation is palpable as she plays alone in her well-appointed nursery. One can reasonably surmise that Mari will be an only child. Which isn't to say she isn't loved or fortunate. Surely I would choose her safe and secure existence over Ponijao's for my son.

For all the differences that Babies so skillfully draws out, the similarities are more profound. At a primal level what unites these four families is greater than what divides them. Get Ponijao, Bayar, Mari & Hattie (and their parents) together in a room and they would have a level of understanding that transcends the cultural differences. Nature hasn't changed and nurture hasn't changed much. The significant milestones of infancy are the same as they've been for millennia of human history -- from sitting up to crawling, from liquids to solid food, to the awesome achievements of learning how to walk and talk. As we watch these four we experience the joy of a journey all of us have taken. This is who we are. This is what we do.

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