Thursday, May 20, 2010

Babies: Tiny treasure

Babies (2010) • View trailer for Babies
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for chaste nudity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.20.10
Buy DVD: Babies • Buy Blu-Ray: Babies [Blu-ray]

Although director Thomas Balms and producer Alain Chabat took pains to avoid editorializing in their oh-so-charming documentary, Babies, they clearly succumbed to a few trenchant observations here and there.

My favorite, by far, involves a series of scenes with Mari, in Tokyo: The little girl is surrounded by toys, games and all manner of colorful distractions, but for some reason remains discontent. Perhaps she's tired; perhaps she's over-stimulated. Whatever the cause, she abandons herself to wails of frustration. We can't help but laugh; she's just so upset, and unable to communicate why.
Little Bayarjargal, who lives in a nomadic yurt in Mongolia, happily crawls
about on the rough ground immediately outside his home, not caring a whit
about the various goats and cattle that share this rugged pasture land. They
never bother him, so what's to worry?

All that stuff, and she's not happy.

These scenes are intercut with a similarly extended sequence with Bayarjargal, in Mongolia: happy as a clam with a roll of toilet paper.

And nothing else.

It's hard to resist drawing a lesson from these contrasting segments ... which surely couldn't have been cut this way accidentally.

It could be argued, as well, that Balms takes a well-deserved poke at the San Francisco couple raising little Hattie. They're hot-tubbing vegetarians who drive a bio-diesel vehicle: clearly devoted to 17 brands of New Age, Mother Earth, touchy-feely lifestyle choices.

As the representative Americans in a film that'll obviously be popular around the world, they make us all look like fruit bats.

That said, Balms quite cleverly allows Hattie to have the last laugh. During one eye-rolling, group parent-child encounter session that involves lots of chanting and spiritual arm movement, the little girl  just having learned to walk  gets up, ambles across the room and tries to open a door, apparently wanting to bolt.

"I'm right behind you, kid," I muttered, sotto voce, to my Constant Companion.

Both these sequences come somewhat late in Balms' film, after we've gotten to know the four pint-size stars, and regard them as fully dimensioned characters in the biggest story of all: their own lives.

Babies, which unfolds without the distraction of any narration, was designed on a most beguiling premise. Balms' camera crews were granted unlimited access to the birth and first year-plus of four different babies, belonging to four vastly different families in wide-ranging parts of the world: a Himba tribe in Nambia; a nomadic yurt in Mongolia; an upscale and quite wealthy couple in Tokyo; and the aforementioned holistic couple in San Francisco.

Environment and material possessions aside, though, one element remains constant: These parents adore and care for their children to the best of their ability, and their obviously happy children respond in kind.

I used the word "parent" although we mostly see mothers; the fathers are largely absent in Nambia and Mongolia ... not necessarily because they don't care, but because they're working elsewhere. Child-rearing is left to the women in both these cases, and even here the contrasts are intriguing: Several adult women in the Himba tribe collaboratively look after numerous infants, while the young Mongolian mother is on her own with little Bayarjargal and his slightly older brother.

That's another delightful part of this droll film: the dynamic between infants. Hattie and Mari are only children  at least so far, at this point in their lives  while Bayarjargal has an older brother, and Ponijao (in Nambia) has a slightly older sister and a still older nephew (born to one of Ponijao's mother's older daughters).

In Nambia, we repeatedly witness mimicry in action: the method by which infants repeat what they see others do, whether children or adults.

The film opens with a hilarious moment as Ponijao and her sister smash rocks, hammer-style, on a stone, imitating the process by which their mother crushes and then mixes concrete red ochre with oil, which serves as a sort of sunscreen. Later, when a bit older, Ponijao laughs, dances and claps her hands, again following her mother's lead.

It's interesting to note that Ponijao develops the fastest, of these four babies: first to stand and walk, quickest to replicate adult behavior. It would seem essential for a child being raised in such a harsh environment.

Bayarjargal's dynamic with his older brother, Delgerjargal, is equally amusing. The first-born son (by two years) clearly is jealous of the new arrival, at one point gently "whipping" his younger brother with a scarf-like piece of material. A bit later, Delgerjargal carefully pushes Bayarjargal outside in a stroller ... and leaves the smaller boy in the open, with a herd of cattle approaching.

Not that this matters; we later see Bayarjargal doing his best to climb atop some sort of metal container, as cattle approach and eventually mill all about him. But they never step on him, and  although she's not visible in the frame  we can be sure the little boy's mother is watching carefully.

Three of these infants  Hattie, Mari and Bayarjargal  also have family cats as playthings. All three felines are blessed with impressive patience, tolerating ear-pulling and all sorts of other indignities. At one point, Bayarjargal's impish older brother attempts to "walk" their cat with a leash, and instead drags the poor creature across the floor.

We can't help noticing, as well, that the outward appearance of Bayarjargal's apparently simple circular dwelling is quite deceptive. It may look humble from the outside, but the interior is comfortably appointed and includes laptop computers and cell phones, linked to the world via a large satellite dish.

Balms presents these parallel stories more or less chronologically, aside from the rock-smashing prologue with Ponijao. We see the mothers pregnant, witness one birth. Bayarjargal's mother, very quickly after her new son is born, wraps him in a blanket, tightly enough to prompt nervous chuckles from us viewers, and then carefully balances on the rear of the motorcycle being driven by her husband, in order to return home after her brief hospital stay.

(A motorcycle? So quickly after having a baby? All the women in our viewing audience crossed their legs and went a little pale.)

We subsequently get a sense of the family and environment dynamics in each home  although Ponijao rarely is shown in any sort of dwelling, instead living like the rest of her tribe out in the open  and have ample opportunity to wonder about the unique qualities of these four nature/nurture equations.

How would Bayarjargal react, if suddenly placed in the stimulus-laden environment that Mari takes for granted? What would the almost laughably pampered Hattie make of life in the African bush?

Balms takes pains not to endorse one lifestyle over another; they're merely displayed for our later commentary. Mostly, the filmmaker and his crew depict the evolving sense of wonder that is such an essential part of any infant's growing process.

We share the intimacy of milestone moments: the first smile, the first expression of recognition, the first display of curiosity, the dawning awareness that the world is far larger than can be imagined. Other little triumphs are equally precious, as when Mari figures out how to place a dowel inside the like-sized hole of a plastic ring.

Spontaneous moments are equally heartwarming, as when Ponijao, so tired that she barely can keep her eyes open, nods off and sways, then jerks awake as she perceives the loss of balance ... only to repeat the process seconds later  her mother preventing a fall -— because the child is so exhausted.

Balms clearly devised the ultimate aw-shucks documentary. At a brisk 79 minutes, the film concludes before wearing out its welcome, and it ends on a note of jubilation, as the last of these four infants finally stands and takes a first step, ready to face the world.

We then see these children a few years older, during clips shown with the closing credits; be sure you don't leave too quickly.

Babies is the heartwarming result of an extremely clever premise. I'm surprised nobody thought of this years ago.

And delighted that somebody finally did.

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