Babies a new film by director Thomas Balmès follows four babies from birth until they take their first steps at their homes.
Babies (Focus Features) is a breathtakingly lush film that follows four babies from birth until they take their first steps at their homes in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco. There are no subtitles or real dialogue; in fact, the movie is not about adult interaction with these children—it’s about observance. Shot almost like a wildlife documentary, it features long, low, still and mostly silent stretches during which we just watch the babies go about their days.
“It’s the most simple film you can imagine, and it questions your relationship with your own children,” says director Thomas Balmès, a father of three. While the cultural differences—feeding, cleaning, learning and safety—are vast, Balmès’ goal was not to judge or emphasize those contrasts. “I was struck by how inventive all the mothers are,” he says. For instance, water is scarce in the Mongolian yurt where a baby named Bayarjargal lives with his family, so his mother washes his face with breast milk.
“The message, to me,” says Balmès, “is that as long as there is love, babies actually need very little.” Despite the unseen presence of a cameraperson, some scenes may make you rise out of your seat (such as the one where Bayarjargal crawls around while cattle step delicately over him,). “Yes, there were times when I got really scared and wanted to jump in,” Balmès says. “But we didn’t; and what I realized is how much we Western parents ‘do’ for our kids. They don’t really need it, and they learn so much from getting bored and having to fill that emptiness themselves.”—Peg Moline
Babies opens nationwide May 7th.
Interview with Thomas Balmès, director of Babies (Focus Features)
Fit Pregnancy: First of all, what a beautiful movie! It was so delicious, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. What was your goal with this move?
Thomas Balmès: Well this is something interesting: I’ve done about 10 films and I’ve learned not to be so into the goal, but instead open to the process. I trust that the process will bring me somewhere, and I’m usually not sure where. That’s an attitude I have as a director, feeling the love of a situation and letting the reality lead me.
The miracle of Babies is the simplicity of the subject, but the film ends up telling us—and especially me—many things about ourselves. It’s a very simple film, really, I think it’s the most simple film you can imagine, but you look it and, to me, it questions your own relationship with your children. I am hoping that the result helps me with my kids. It certainly caused me to watch myself and others and see what is the good and the bad and how we should be behaving with our children.
The goal was not to judge or emphasize differences, but what’s remarkable is you see the cultural differences very clearly. I was struck most by the inventiveness of the mothers: One woman [the Mongolian mother] washed her baby’s face with her breast milk, and in Namibia, where there is very little accessible water, the mothers use a paste for cleaning. The kids don’t seem to suffer. It’s a big lesson, you are shown different environments and ways of growing up, and in the end everyone is trying to do their best for their child, there is not a better way than another.
The message is that as long as there is love children thrive.
FP: The trailers for Babies have been everywhere; I’ve heard it described as a wildlife film about humans. How would you describe your movie to someone who hasn’t seen a preview of it?
TB: I would describe it first as a look at an infant entering the world, then everything that baby experiences in the first months of life: the first thing they touch, eat, see, hear. It’s a collection of first moments, and following the babies 18 months in four different environments. We tried to be there for those moments that every parent observes, and we also tried to make these common moments thematic as well as dramatic. For instance, every parent has seen when their child is facing himself in the mirror but rarely has seen that on a big screen.
The confrontation of the universality of these moments, I think, creates something else—maybe a message of joy and hope in difficult times, in a very primary manner.
FP: Was the filming simultaneous, meaning were the babies all born around the same time?
TB: No, they were all one month apart, so there were three or four months between the youngest and oldest; and we showed only one birth, because the calculations were all very complicated. But we had a cameraperson there for one birth and we were happy to get it. It took about two years to film from start to finish.
FP: The camera didn’t seem to move at all and I kept wondering: Was there someone behind it at all times, or it is on a tripod?
TB: There always was a person behind the camera, and the camera was usually on a tripod. And the babies never noticed the camera, but sometimes the older brother or parents were aware and played a little bit with it. The film could only take place in this moment of life, with humans who are too young to notice; the film ends when the babies start to realize that they are being filmed.
FP: There were times, such as when the Mongolian baby was crawling around the field with the cattle, that I got a little scared! Did you feel like jumping in and helping sometimes?
TB: This is a question we get a lot: ‘Weren’t you afraid of the cattle stepping on the baby?’ But this is what the baby was doing on a daily basis. Yes, I was a bit afraid, too; but you could see that the cattle were very gentle with him and very aware of his fragileness. I didn’t interfere, and I’m happy I didn’t. We observed [the situation] for many months and we knew that there was nothing to fear. The cattle also were born around this situation. They have learned to interact very gently—also, they would not step on their own babies.
It was important for us to have this interaction in the movie. It showed that some babies don’t have many toys, but they have goats and cattle and dogs to play with.
FP: Do you have children?
TB: I have three children, ages 7, 5 and 3. The baby actually is the same age as the movie babies are now, so he could have been cast. But my wife did not like that idea.
FP: What’s the most surprising thing you learned making Babies?
TB: Most surprising is how we parents try to do too much and don’t leave enough emptiness in our kids’ lives. They need more moments of getting bored, and this is something that Western people like me forget. It definitely made me reconsider my relationship with my own kids, that maybe we shouldn’t always find ways to stimulate them. This is one of the big lessons in the film, how much attention is really necessary. We see the non-Western babies interacting with the world on their own, which I think gives them a huge autonomy. I admit, though, it’s easy to say but harder to do.
Also, I was surprised how the people in Namibia and Mongolia were so full of joy, living with very little and raising their children with no material goods at all. All of them the parents, too, were smiling all the time. Namibian mother was one of the most joyful people I’ve ever met.
FP: I noticed, too, that the Namibian mothers seemed to nurse many other babies along with their own.
TB: Yes! This is the way they function—it’s like an open bar, any baby passing by may eat. And everything seemed so relaxed. There is one segment, also, where you see all the babies saying “Mama” in a very similar manner. It’s completely universal.
FP: When I saw the movie, I laughed a lot.
TB: In a normal screening room, we hear lots of laughter, there’s a lot of humor that parents recognize. It’s not meant to document the different ways of raising a baby, really. And the accidents a baby may encounter are pure comedy. It’s wonderful that audiences get that.
Babies is a Focus Features presentation of a Chex Wam/StudioCanal co-production with the participation of Canal +. Executive producer, TBC Productions, Chez Wam. Original idea by Alain Chabat. Adapted and directed by Thomas Balmès, Edited by Craig McKay, ACE and Raymond Bertrand. Produced by Alain Chabat, Amandine Billot, Christine Rouxel. Music by Bruno Coullais.