I met with cinematographer and director Thomas Balmés following an April 26, 2010 National Board of Review screening of his new film Babies. Traveling the world to document the lives of four babies, who are developing in front of your eyes, is a unusual job. It was a lot of hard work, as Balmés graciously explained.
Directed by Thomas Balmés
Review by Thomas W. Campbell
Link to original NBR review
Babies (2010) is a delightful and unusual documentary that follows a year or so in the lives of four children -; without commentary, interviews or text (except for the names of the children, which we see only once). It’s a mesmerizing and nearly flawless film -; created in a strictly observational style using the “direct cinema/cinema verité” techniques of pioneering filmmakers Frederick Wiseman and the Maysles brothers. Wiseman became famous for making films that unsparingly chronicled the inner workings of institutions -;with intentionally generic sounding names like Hospital, Basic Training, High School, Central Par. The Maysles (cinematographer Albert and sound recordist David) made films that often focused on unusual individuals, events or artists (Salesman, Grey Gardens, Christo in Paris). Wiseman and Albert Maysles are still alive and making films and Babies is firmly in the tradition of their best work.
Babies is directed and shot by Thomas Balmés, who’s past work includes A Decent Factory (2004), in which he investigates how a Nokia Cell phone factory is run in China, and How Much is you Life Worth? (2007), which follows the internal workings of a personal injury law firm. Balmés spent a great deal of time in preproduction searching for the right families to follow and ultimately chose four stable nurturing sets of parents who would provide the supportive care he felt was central to the theme of the film. The film intercuts between four babies on four continents: Mari (Tokyo), Hattie (San Francisco), Bayar (Namibia) and Ponijao (Mongolia).
There is a wide range of cultural contrast between the families. Mari and Hattie come from large modern cities, while Bayar, the only boy, lives in an undeveloped part of Africa. Ponijao’s Mongolian family are farmers who live in a rural world with some modern conveniences. Although there are obvious cultural and financial disparities each of the families seem well situated within their own societies -; they are clearly able to provide for their children without undo hardship. This keeps the focus on the development of the children as opposed to family-related issues.
Balmés took on the film when he was asked by veteran producer Alain Chabat (Astérix & Obélix: Mission Cléopâtre,) if he would like to make a “wildlife” film with babies as the subject. Balmés immediately embraced the idea and, like his previous work, decided to both direct and shoot the project. Shooting in HD he was free to employ a style based on master shots that are surprisingly long in duration. The camera is almost always locked down, with little or no movement. There is no sense of “home movies” in Babies—no gratuitous hand-held shooting to ramp up the drama. Training his lens exclusively on his subjects we are privy to the day-to-day lives of children “in the wild”. Untouched as much as possible by the presence of the filmmakers the babies respond and develop in front of the camera in natural and spontaneous ways.
There is a balance to the film that comes from long duration shots that are allowed to play until the narrative moment is complete. In Mongolia, for instance, as Bayar is still learning to walk, he hangs from an upturned metal can, completely naked. In the distance, in a deep focus shot taken with a long lens, a cow appears, walking towards him (and the camera). As it comes closer other cows appear, also moving towards the child. Bayar struggles down from his perch and is soon completely surrounded by curious friendly animals. All of the children grow up in close proximity to animals – Hattie and Mari live in households with cats, Bayar has adventures with goats, cats, cows and even a giant rooster who looms over him in bed. Ponijao is attracted to a large friendly dog who does not seem to mind having his mouth continuously stretched from side to side. The close relation of animals and humans takes place in a way that is natural and accepting. Whether it is a cat having it’s head pushed around or being dragged across the floor by a leash, or a herd of goats stepping around a child who insists on lounging at their feet, each animal instinctively understands that this small awkward creature means them no harm.
The children share common experiences as they grow -; and each event, captured on video, becomes a meaningful moment in their developing lives. They learn to breastfeed, crawl spastically across the floor or ground, and to play with whatever is at hand. Ponijao balances a small tin can on her head and Mari repeatedly places a round peg into a wooden hole while at the same time rolling on the carpeted floor in a tantrum. Bayar discovers the hard way that water in a plastic container will spill on his head if he lifts it up. Ponijao has an older competitive brother who seems to toughen her as they play. Mari, in the arms of her mother, looks with wonder at the busy streets of Tokyo as they walk among traffic. Hattie jumps up and down in a bouncing harness as her mom does dishes behind her and later attempts to explore the mysteries of cell phone use.
Although two editors are credited the final cut was by Craig McKay, who has edited a number of Jonathan Demme’s films, including Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia and also cut Warren Beatty’s Reds. The editing is consistent with the shooting style, the long takes are allowed to develop and the film picks up pace as the children begin to gain control of their limbs. As the babies finally get onto their feet late in the film, McKay adds a brisk “learning to walk” montage, cut to the upbeat and deceptively simple music of Bruno Coulais.
In parallel journeys that develop thousands of miles apart, Hattie, Bayar, Ponijao and Mari ultimately prove to have more in common than cultural differences might suggest. Though they never meet, each baby transcends their environment and becomes part of the human family, confirming the very idea that Balmés seems to ultimately be exploring. We are all alike—so why can’t we all get along?