Thomas Balmes, director
Starring: Bayarjargal (Mongolia), Mari (Tokyo), Hattie (San Francisco), Ponijao (Namibia)
Anyone fortunate enough to be the parent of a healthy child knows the elation of watching and helping as a baby discovers its body and relationship to the world. I remember thinking, around the time my daughter was four and son was one, that every baby was beautiful in its own way—and how disappointing it is that they become so much more difficult as they grow older.
No such dark thoughts intrude on director Thomas Balmes in his feature documentary Babies, which opened the Hot Docs festival last Thursday and now will enjoy a commercial run. Reflecting on the universality of babies—their naïve joy, curiosity and capacity for growth—Balmes offers four young characters for the audience to enjoy: Bayarjargal in rural Mongolia, Mari in urban Tokyo, San Francisco’s Hattie and Ponijao, a Namibian.
Each is a veritable uncut gem, replete with the physical appeal and inquisitiveness that marks the vast majority of babies. There is little sense of contrast between the children—which is, quite possibly, one of Balmes’ points. All are seen exploring the world but in highly limited ways. Bayarjargal crawls among cows unattended in one scene while Hattie falls after moving too quickly down a slide. As the movie credits always tell you: “no child was harmed while making this film.”
Balmes’ choices for his shoots allow us to relish in different locales. The breathtaking plains of Mongolia contrast nicely with the constricting but architecturally intriguing vistas of Tokyo while the dusty, sunny climes of Namibia couldn’t be farther apart in look or feel from rainy, noisy San Francisco. Their respective settings will transform these children as they get older but not so much as babies. Similarly, the parenting styles in traditional Mongolia are hardly the same as in cool, quirky San Francisco but that will hardly affect a very young child.
The savvy Balmes recognizes this and simply lets the camera record the locations for their physical beauty and contrasting visual appeal. For most of the film, the parents, who also inhabit the environments with their babies, are barely present. The men, in particular, don’t play major roles in any of the four stories. And the women are there mainly to nurture the babies with milk and kisses.
What does Babies tell us? Not much really. There’s no dialogue or narration. It turns out that babies are beautiful everywhere. While we certainly know that, this gorgeous film is a visual poem to the ephemeral but charming life of babies across the globe. Is the film lightweight? Of course. But is it elegant? Yes—and uplifting, too