The non-narrative documentary can be a dicey endeavor. For a filmmaker to let the visuals and sounds he shoots speak solely, is a sign of tremendous faith in the subject matter. Thomas Balmés' 2010 documentary simple titled "Babies," is such a film. At a surface glance it appears to be the big budget home movies of four different children from four different countries, something you might expect excerpts of to show up on YouTube. However, Balmés documentary, devoid of narration and subtitles, allowing only audiences who speak the languages of the families to verbally understand what is going on, is an insightful and, clichéd as it sounds, heartwarming look at the global innocence of childhood and the bond between parents and siblings.
Running only 78 minutes in length, "Babies" wasn't a movie I was looking forward to seeing theatrically, but I was soon pulled into the worlds of Ponijao, a male Namibian; Mari, a female Japanese; Hattie, a female child of San Francisco; and I dare say the film's scene stealer, Bayar, a female from Mongolia. Balmés unobtrusive camera serves as an observer from the births of these children to their first step, giving an intimate glimpse into the moments between child and sibling, child and parent, and child alone with only their purest, most innocent thoughts. It's not a "greatest hits" collection of the babies being cute, there are many moments that provide a slice-of-life look at the mundane, from Mari crawling around while her parents work at home, to Ponijao sitting with his older brother making silly sounds with their hands and mouth. It's a reminder we all started (hopefully) healthy and without any worry of the stresses life dealt our parents.
There are however, a number in moments that will put a smile on your face and quite possibly send you into a laughing fit. Hattie fleeing from a hippieish children's class, pulling desperately at the door to escape the "love the planet" song the other parents are chanting is brilliant and best of all, a natural reaction. As young as the children are, they still exhibit behaviors we can all identify with: disgust at the hard "stem" of a banana, frustration at a seemingly simple task not working right, we may react to these instances with more refined behavior, but the core emotions are present without prejudice for age.
Equally without prejudices are the bonds between the children and their families. Despite vast economic differences, Ponijao is born into a traditional African village while Mari appears to be living in a high-rise somewhere in the heart of a major Japanese city. The parents though all care for their children with the same love and affection, tending to their needs, embracing them for comfort, and disciplining them when they get into trouble. I do feel Balmés makes a not so subtle statement regarding Western child rearing, showing Hattie crawling on the floor with her dad while her mother lies nearby reading a book that is more or less an instruction manual for parenting. Ponijao and Bayar, both seem to be raised just fine by their mothers (fathers in both cases are absent figures, off providing for the families), despite the more primitive settings, in fact Ponijao benefits from being taken care of by the entire village of mothers as well as older children.
I find it hard to believe anyone couldn't find some joy in "Babies." The sheer fact that for 3/4ths of the film you have no idea what is being said, but can still infer through behavior and emotions is a testament to Balmés trust in the subjects. The babies themselves don't realize or don't care they are being filmed, they go about their lives, with no agenda or front to put on for viewers. It's 100% raw and honest innocence and freedom. The beauty of these young lives makes the film easily re-watchable, getting to experience uncorrupted lives learning how to live.
The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is solid as one could expect from a documentary filmed in a manner intended to be unobtrusive. Color levels vary from location to location depending on available natural lighting and for the most part are natural looking. Detail isn't adequate and consistent throughout. In general, it's a pleasant looking film, free of minor technical glitches, but won't wow you visually.
The English 5.1 audio track only shows real life when the instrumental score picks up; the rest of the audio is natural and will sometimes have a hint of echo or a muddled quality due to environmental factors. The actual sound balance between the feature and the score is a little off, in favor of the score. Sound is for the most part clear and even though you won't be able to understand a good portion of the dialogue, you can distinguish in the tones of voices. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are included but only serve the American family; the dialogue of the other families remains un-translated.
The two extras are rather brief consisting of "Babies: Three Years Later" a short segment showing Balmes returning to visit the families three years later to show them the finished film; most of this footage however wound up in the closing credits. The other segment is titled "Everybody Loves... Your Babies," and serves as fulfillment for some contest held in conjunction with the film. While a commentary track from Balmes allowing him to illuminate on what actually went on would be interesting, I can understand why one wasn't included, as it would undermine his intent.
"Babies" is a wonderful, no-frills documentary that lets four babies "speak" for themselves through their interactions with the world around them. It's a positively happy film that only shows babies upset from frustration, never sickness or injury. It speaks as a reminder of where we came from and how before culture and society could affect the shaping of our worldviews, we were all very much the same. Highly Recommended.