"BABIES": A Concept so Easy Four Babies Did It
By Nick Adams
Last year there was a documentary called "Babies." It was about babies. Starring babies. Every frame of the movie was occupied by at least one baby--often in the center of the frame. French documentary Thomas Balmes chronicles the birth and first 18 months (or so) of four babies' lives--living in Mongolia, Namibia, Tokyo and San Francisco, respectively. Using vigilante restraint the film allows audiences to watch, feel and analyze what amounts to a celebration of the human experience. And for this it just not only snub by the Oscars but snub by the people who talk about what films got snubbed.
To describe the movie requires one to first address what it is not. This is not a movie about raising children. Perhaps real life parents will roll their eyes at the unending joy (and almost entirely absent struggle) of raising a baby, but the movie is about the babies' experiences. Most often, these experiences are cultural confusion--for every culture is confusing upon entry. The experience of the parents is completely disregarded in this film so much so that the dialogue over heard (mostly baby-talk) borders on annoyingly muffled or distant, at first. Assuming that any viewer speaks only one of the four languages, three-fourths of the film will be complete gibberish anyway. There are no subtitles, and need not any. The babies can't understand Japanese or Mongolian any more than myself, so why should I be privy to such vital/superfluous information the parents are conveying? This is a film for anthropologists, and people who don't like "preachy" documentaries.
The complete lack of subtitles, interviews and narration keep the babies in the quiet forefront. A lesser film wouldn't have this kind of courage and would instead rely on celebrity voices, flashy animation and sweeping generalizations. Instead, in "Babies," the audience is allowed, even required, to bring their own interpretations to the images. In this way, "Babies" is inarguably more confident, artistic and flatly informative than other documentary heavyweights of the last year, including "Inside Job." Moreover, as documentaries have become increasing subject to factual criticism, “Babies” represents data in the purest form film can provide. Some have criticized "Babies" for lacking substance and scope, but such criticism reveals the audiences' lack of substance and scope. "Babies" is information is the rawest, watchable, sense. "Babies" can't add scope because this isn't a film about human societies or babies in general. "Babies" is a reference to these specific babies--that's it.
This documentary is not a comparison between babies of different societies. A Mongolian baby being confused by a goat vs. an American baby being confused by a cat. Other critics have wondered if more babies would have been more appropriate (i.e. a Middle-Eastern baby, a Latino baby, European baby, etc.). But this again completely misses the point that babies, like all people, are not comparable on a 1:1 scale. A baby raised in San Francisco is going to have a different upbringing than a baby raised in Texas. In fact, a baby raised in San Francisco is going to have a different upbringing than another baby raised in San Francisco. Go figure, people can’t be accurately summarized.
This is not to say that there aren't similarities in the raising of all babies, or at least in the infant stages of the four documented babies. The most horrifying/hilarious motif was the relationship each of the babies had with animals. Going into the movie, I was under the impression babies are like eggs placed on the asphalt of the Kansas Turnpike--left alone, they got a lifespan of about 5.2 seconds. Turns out, at least among wildlife, that might be a slight exaggeration. Repeatedly, each the babies seemed to be in danger of being trampled, horned, mauled or ate; and each time the animals held nothing but complete, peaceful, indifference toward the babies' provocation (ex. lifting a dog's upper lip to see it's teeth). It's as if many animals have a truce with humans that babies are off-limits--a truce that humans barely (or don't?) hold with each other. So sure are the animals (dogs, cats, cows, goats, etc.) that death would immediately fall upon them for harming a baby, that none respond to the presence or finger-poking, prodding and probing of the infants.
The film, clocking in at a brisk 80 minute runtime, juxtaposes the stages of baby life without making judgements on the societies viewed. Any criticism articulated by the audience, regarding a foreign society's level of luxury, sanitation or sanity is completely brought into the movie by said audience. The simple fact of the film is that none of these babies died and all were usually happy, or at least entertaining. Admittedly, my day-to-day life contains few babies and fewer animals, so those sequences struck me as the most compelling but left me conscious of, and usually intrigued by, the other sequences including earliest education, pooping (just a little bit), crawling, mirror discoveries, genital discoveries, first birthdays, first steps and unintelligible first words. Indeed, this documentary, and this documentary alone, perfects the goal of raising discussion without cannibalizing itself with arguable answers. Compared to this film, the 2010 Oscar-nominated documentaries seem to have been made by a bunch of, well,…jerks.