Documenting four babies and culture

by Marlena Chertock

Photo courtesy of Google Images.

Exclamations of “aww” and “so cute” filled the air on May 27 as eight women watched the new movie “Babies” in a Maryland theatre. The women were the only viewers during the 8:40 p.m. showing.

The documentary, directed by Thomas Balmes, offers a unique perspective on the first year of four babies. Balmes followed Bayarjargal (Bayar) from Mongolia, Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Tokyo and Hattie from San Francisco for two years while they passed through the stages of development.

The documentary is unique in other aspects, as well. There is no narration throughout the entire film. In fact, the only words in the film are Hattie’s mother reading her a book, the parents cooing to their children or the babies’ first words. This interesting technique gives a personal and first-hand feel to the film. It is as if the viewer is watching the events unfold right before him—uncut, unedited and real.

The cuts in the film show vast differences and similarities among the cultures. While Hattie plays with dolls in her toyroom, Bayar crawls among the cattle and grass. Ponijao tastes everything on the ground, from plastic bottles, to rocks to her siblings’ or friends’ hair, while Mari eyes a rattle her father shakes over her head. The babies experience temper-tantrums and crying fits along with tranquil moments when they stare in awe at the city moving around them, a rooster creeping across the house floor or a dog panting in the heat, depending on their respective cultures.

“I love the drama,” one viewer said during the scene where Mari attempts to put a round wooden toy through a wooden stick. Once she does so the round toy slides down the stick and falls to the ground, setting her off in a burst of tears and screaming. Other scenes are shown next, but this scene returns, showing Mari on the ground, kicking and crying.

Although most of the film remains devoid of music, the moments of music work well with the film. When Bayar learns how to stand and keep his balance, slowly lifting his hands off the ground and standing up straight, the music swells, adding to the feeling of his successful moment. The song used for the trailer and in the film is Sufjan Stevens’ “The Perpetual Self, ‘What Would Saul Alinsky Do?’” The song’s underlying guitar, quieter voices and repeated phrase of “Uh oh” gives it a younger feel, matching the music and images on the screen.

The other songs in the film score were composed by Bruno Coulais. Coulais chose not to use overpowering lyrics but rather to make the music mostly instrumental. This unobtrusiveness adds to the feeling that the viewer is watching the events first-hand.

The best parts of the film, and the moments that caused the audience to laugh the most, were instances of cultural differences. In one scene an doctor visits Bayar’s family, places him in a contraption made out of shorts with straps and a scale on top to weigh him, while Hattie is placed on a typical American baby scale. Ponijao’s mother and the other women in Namibia remain unclothed on their tops for the entire film, while the other mother’s remain clothed unless they need to breast-feed. These slight to major cultural differences offer a bit of understanding for viewers. There should have been more of a focus on the distinct cultures. The first year of life is certainly interesting, but perhaps more fascinating are differences in culture among the first year.

If Balmes travels back to these same children and creates “Toddlers” the movie, women all over the world will most likely see the film. It is the mother-child relationship that draws women in to watch such films over and over again.

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