Elevate Difference


I just got back from seeing the documentary Babies. I have to say that it was great! Director Thomas Balmès followed four babies from four countries for a little over a year each. The movie is mostly without dialogue, except for the little bit of the parents' talking. It is mostly shot from the baby's level, and is organized by the developmental stages of babies' lives. This choice was a great way to highlight each culture and keep the movie flowing.

I really enjoyed seeing the differences in parenting and lifestyles. I found Ponijao, the baby from Namibia, to be the most interesting. The parenting style there was extremely community oriented, though men seemed to have no place in parenting there. This collective parenting made it hard to tell who the baby's mother was through much of the movie.

Bayar, from Mongolia, lives on a family farm. It's amazing to see how closely he grows up with the animals and how he is given a lot of freedom. It's also interesting that his parents seem to take a very removed roll. Although the mother is an active parent at times, Bayar tends to be left to his own devices or with a slightly older sibling.

Japanese Mari was raised in a very Western manner, with her mother taking her to prearranged play dates and having her interact with toys produced by the baby industry. In California, Hattie grows up with a ton of toys and books. She goes to organized baby-centered activities, but otherwise is very solitary. Out of all the babies' fathers, Hattie's seems to be the most involved in his child's life.

Babies does a great job of staying silent; there is no voice-over commentary or focus on the parents apart from when they are interacting with their child. That said, I think the filmmaker intended to create a discussion about parenting, but Babies could easily act as a way to create an Other by creating a divide between Western and non-Western worlds. Although it shows how babies are similar overall, cultural and economic divisions and not providing context and commentary makes it too easy to view those from non-Western cultures as outsiders.

When watching the film it's hard to remember that these are sample sizes of one, which makes it easy to critique the parenting style of, say, the Japanese parents because there are more than a few scenes of Mari being crabby. But she could easily have colic or be teething or it could just be a result of her parents' individual style, not a reflection of Japanese society as a whole. Similarly, Babies makes it seem as though this Mongolian family is completely removed from parenting, when it could be the economic pressures they face that creates a need for both of Bayar's parents to work.

I noticed some negative reactions in the theater. The film shows breastfeeding, which elicited a small gasp from another patron, and there were also some inappropriate reactions to the children in two of the cultures who were regularly without pants. I think these reactions tell a lot about Americans biases, and how these negative views make natural choices difficult for many mothers.

Other than these few things, Babies was amazing. I'd definitely suggest it to anyone who has an interest in children or parenting. I would just make sure the person understands that these are glimpses into the lives of individuals, and while the people featured may represent a part of their culture, they are not necessarily representative of the culture as a whole.

Cross-posted at Squirrely Mama

Written by: Cheryl Friedman, May 17th 2010

I saw this too and agree with a lot of your critique, however baby Mari's "crabbyness" actually apeared to me to be frustration with her inability to complete a specific task that she could visualize but did not yet have to motor skills to actualize. This is often a sign of a relatively high IQ in a child. I took it as she was just a particularly precocious kid. Although that could be seen as reinforcing some asian stereotypes, I guess, but I mean how can you guess a baby's intelligence before they are born? Doubt it was intentional. And I thought Bayar was left on his own due largely to the family's isolation in a particularly rural area and the mother's need to accomplish household and farm chores without much community support (because everything is so spread out) and is therefore a situation that might equally apply to a family in a really rural region of the middle U.S. Point being: I heartily agree that it is conversation starter!

I've been very interested to see this film. It's so typical, but still frustrating, that people would be offended by breastfeeding. Biologically, that's what breasts are for. It's not mothers or babies' fault that we've sexualized breasts.