An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis


            Why didn't someone think of this sooner? In the simplest terms, "Babies" asks how a baby's first year of growth is affected by the culture that is the accident of birth. This lovely documentary wanders quietly, an observer at a distance, through that first year as mothers and their newborns get to know each other in the languages and customs of their native lands.

            French documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmes has credited his inspired source: "based on an original idea by Alain Chabat," an appropriate gesture if ever there was one. But Mr. Balmes must take credit for the lovely soft hand he has laid on his subjects. No voice over lecture tries to teach us about what we are watching; no subtitles distract us from the magical, explosive first year of growth.

            Every parent in the audience will relate to the film through a personal lens, but let me assure you most humbly that the elders among them will know that what they see in these babies is likely to be a nearly perfect prediction of the adult to come. If there is a universal lesson, it is that every baby is born with a full set of character and personality traits. The acquisitive one can grow up to be a bank robber or a bank president depending on environment, but acquisitive he will be.

            Filming took three years of moving about through time zones and countries while needing to be there when the rooster stood on the baby's crib rail or the goat drank from the baby's bathwater. The filmmakers chose four widely spread locations: Mongolia (Bayargargal), Namibia (Ponijao), Tokyo (Mari), and San Francisco (Hattie).

            As much as we may try not to judge families or cultures, it is hard not to blanch at the sterility and force feeding of the American and Japanese modern ways of jump starting their young in group activities. Watching the Mongolian and Namibian segments leaves us reexamining modern privilege in the light of the natural play and exploring of the children in simpler cultures. One watches the ants crawling on his legs; another and his brother begin to crawl and head straight to the rain puddles where they splash and drink. I have never been more grateful for the absence of Wal-Mart.

            In one of the most memorable scenes, Ponijao imitates his older brother as he grinds and pounds pebbles on a rock base as his mother does. The older boy, making great progress toward the goal he has set, becomes fiercely resentful of the intrusions of his little brother. This work is his alone. We laugh, knowing that here it is: the bank president, or the bank robber. But what we know already is that he is a hard worker who won't be distracted and that baby brother is right behind him. For mothers, this first year in different languages in different corners of the globe is achingly familiar and deeply poignant. A salute to Thomas Balmes and Alain Chabat.


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