Monday, August 29, 2011


Nope, this is not a personal blog post (although I am expecting again). Babies is a 2010 French documentary, detailing the lives of four children from birth to about one year of age. The babies are Ponijao from Namibia, Hattie from San Francisco, Mari from Tokyo, and Bayar from Mongolia.

I'd been wanting to see this for some time, ever since I saw it advertised in the theater. Never, before I had a child of my own, would I have wanted to see such a documentary, but something about the previews just reminded me of my own son and, therefore, touched my heartstrings. But that was the preview.

The documentary itself did not impress me much. It is rather slow. There's no narration or even subtitles, and when there is English (San Francisco), you couldn't care less what the people are saying (almost wish they weren't saying anything). But that's not to say the filmmakers aren't trying to make a point of some sort. It's not always obvious. I'm not sure they are saying one way of raising children is necessarily better than another, but they are obviously comparing for some reason. Maybe they're just saying there's no one right way.

What bothered me most about the film was actually the parenting, particularly in San Francisco and Mongolia. In San Francisco, the dad takes Mattie to a parent/child class where they chant something bordering on worship to Mother Earth. At another point, when Mattie purposefully slaps her mother across the cheek twice in a row, her mother simply smiles at her with an "Oh, Mattie," like that's going to tell the child she was wrong.

Mongolia was worse, at least for the well-being of the child. Although the parents of these four kids aren't the main show, they are almost nonexistent in the Mongolia parts, which is odd since the family lives in a remote home in the middle of a huge plateau with a bunch of cattle for neighbors. Shots of the Mongolian baby mostly show him either alone or with his abusive toddler brother. In one shot, the brother alternates hitting the baby across the face with a scarf and looking directly at the camera, as if to say, "Are you going to stop me? No? Fine, look what I can get away with." His little baby brother cries as the scarf hits him. In another shot, the toddler pushes his baby brother in the stroller a little ways away from the house to where the cattle are and leaves him out there as he returns to the house. The toddler treats their pet cat even worse, and certain scenes indicate that the younger baby will follow in his brother's footsteps.

The most different culture is Namibia, Africa. The natives live in mud huts surrounded by drought conditions, constantly covered in dirt. The women are naked above the waist. While surprising at first, the nudity is less and less disturbing as the movie progresses. It's a very cultural thing, not in the least sensual. The documentary is rated PG for this cultural and maternal nudity, also in some of the other countries' parts to a much lesser extent. What's most disturbing about the Africa scenes is the dirt and grime and flies. These people seem like they're from an era long past, the way they live completely off the land and seem to be extensions of the land itself. They sit in the dirt. Their babies crawl in the dirt, putting their faces in it and lifting rocks and old, bleached bones to taste, as any baby would with his surroundings. The difference for our culture is that dirt is outside and we can control what our children get into. This scene of the baby putting a dirty bone in its mouth is followed by a scene of one of the San Francisco parents vacuuming cat hair off the carpet and then using a lint roller on the baby. Again, I don't think the movie was commenting that one way was better than another, just comparing. In Namibia, if the baby pooped, the mom wiped its bottom on her knee and then cleaned her knee with an old corn cob. I thought that was quite smart actually. You wouldn't want to wipe the baby's bottom with the rough cob. To clean the baby's face, the Namibian mother licked it and then spit away the dirt.

You'd think that Namibia is the worst of these four places for a baby to be raised, and certainly, in some ways, it is. But the mothers were always there in the picture, sitting and talking near their babies, even if their babies happened to be in the dirt. In Mongolia, perhaps the baby was slightly cleaner, but the mom was nowhere to be seen. I appreciated the community evident in Namibia, and the baby was obviously happy.

I don't have much to say about the Japanese baby and her family. They seemed the most normal and well-adjusted. Both parents seemed to interact in equal amounts with the baby.

My inclination is to say that I did not enjoy this documentary, though parts of it were very interesting, particularly the different ways these cultures took basic care of their children. I give it two and a half out of five stars.

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