Babies: a Documentary Film

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‘Babies’ is a documentary film which chronicles the first year of life of four babies spanning the globe. Documentarian Thomas Balmès fans out to the grasslands of Namibia, the plains of Mongolia, the high rises of Tokyo and the busy streets of San Francisco in a study of culture, societal structure, geography and tradition, along with parental love and the impact all these elements have on child rearing. In the hunting and gathering society of Namibia and pastoral Mongolia, Balmès follows Ponijao and Bayar and in postindustrial Tokyo and San Francisco we are introduced to Mari and Hattie. While the 1:18 film has no real dialogue, viewers are able to get a distinct feel for each baby’s personality, the role they play within the family structure and perhaps most importantly, the universal undying love the parents display towards their offspring with the ultimate goal to raise happy and healthy children.

Infant Ponijao is reared in a dusty village where families live in log huts fashioned together under what appears to be mud or clay roofs. There is no flooring, carpets or any form of barrier between bare bottoms and the dirt. Inhabitants sit on the ground, both inside and out, to go about daily chores and communal life. Women provide the primary care for infants and young children, with both groups either by their side or strapped to their backs while they work. Interestingly, it appears that men don’t play a big part in day-to-day child rearing as demonstrated in ‘Babies’. Older children serve as role models in family life, at times watching over the little ones and teaching them how to function within their society. In the opening scene of ‘Babies’, we see an older Ponijao seated beside a younger infant grinding rocks on a larger boulder. This process is repeated immediately afterwards in a flashback of the very pregnant mother of Ponijao making some sort of clay paste to rub on her belly.

In this society, little clothing is worn and women’s bare breasts are exposed perhaps simply because of societal norm but it also serves to make breast feeding convenient. It is not uncommon for a woman to feed two infants at a time. Genitalia are covered by loin cloth but infants are seen wearing only beads around their hips. In one scene of ‘Babies’, Ponijao’s mother holds the infant while she has a bowel movement and wipes her butt on her leg, promptly using a corn cob to remove the waste. To bathe Ponijao, her mother cleans her dirty face by licking her skin and spitting out the dirt. She also shaves the infant’s head with a straight knife followed by a rub down with some type of oil. There is no running water but at one point in the film, Ponijao sits in a body of water and drinks directly from the source.

Women are routinely seen in groups socializing as they perform tasks and infants move about interacting with their mothers or each other. Groups of women or children eat meals from the same pot or bowl. Ponijao is observed experiencing the world through her mouth as she tastes rocks, sticks and animal bones. Domestic animals and cattle roam freely, at times interacting with Ponijao. She plays with a dog by grabbing at its mouth and the dog returns the favor by licking Ponijao in her face and mouth under the gaze of Ponijao’s mother. While her mother cleans and skins a goat, Ponijao sits at her side touching the dead animal. This is a simple society where families don’t possess material goods; they make due with things they find or make from items in their world.

Prior to Bayar’s entry into the world, his mother is seen practicing some form of structured exercise or ritual, perhaps for relaxation, and in preparation of his birth. In the hospital the infant Bayar is swaddled very tightly for his trip on the family motorcycle to his home in the grassy plains outside of Bayanchandmani, Mongolia. Bayar’s family resides in a dome shaped home where carpets cover most of the floor, walls and the bed...
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