All About “Babies”

Today is my birthday (I’m 52!) and I love going to the movies, so Stephanie and I went to see Babies. It’s a non-fiction film—I wouldn’t really call it a documentary in the classic sense—and it’s about, well, being a baby. There is no narration, and the closest thing to a plot is the fact that the babies get older as the film goes on. It’s simple, fascinating, entertaining, and extremely thought-provoking, especially if you are interested in how children learn.

Babies records events in the day-to-day lives of four infants. One is a boy: Bayar from Mongolia, and three are girls: Ponijao from Namibia, Mari from Japan, and Hattie from the United States.

Beginning with the birth of each child, the film shows that life in different cultures is the same and different, at the same time. For example, baby Bayar is swaddled tightly and left to lie on his back, while baby Ponijao leans, naked, against her mother’s body. Both are loved and cared for by devoted mothers, but in different ways that reflect their particular climate, economy, and family dynamics.

Mari and Hattie live in worlds much more cosmopolitan than those of the other two children. They attend “Mommy and me”-type classes and have age-appropriate toys. Bayar and Ponijao play with their families’ animals, with dirt, and with their siblings. The interplay between Ponijao and her brother is more informative than a stack of child psychology books if you want to explore the issues of rivalry, support, mentoring, and competitiveness. Many times throughout Babies, the truest emotions are revealed in a few minutes of film, without a word being spoken.

Babies is a mostly silent film. You hear some mothers’ voices and some babies’ noises and (very exciting!) some “Mama” and “Papa”  utterances as the little ones learn to talk. The film ends with each of the four children rising up and taking his or her first steps. It’s a glorious finale and a statement of universality, too. No matter what kind of furniture we have, what kind of clothes we wear, what we play with, who we spend our time with, we all grow as we were designed to grow—from immobile babies to walking toddlers. And as we grow, our desire to learn is increased by our ability to manipulate our environment. That’s what I took away from Babies.

Watching the film, I wondered about what it would be like to live in Namibia, covered with flies; about whether being able to take a baby to the zoo is any better than having a baby live among goats; about how much babies need from their parents, beyond love and food. When Bayar was crawling alone across the Mongolian landscape, I felt an impulse to pick him up and carry him to a soft carpet. But, when Hattie fell off a kiddie car into the sand and her parent rushed over to pick her up, I felt an impulse to say, “Let her be. She can take care of herself.” I’d seen Ponijao take care of herself, because she had to, because her mother was either working at pounding and grinding something (food?) or taking care of another one of her many children. I never saw Ponijao’s father.

I liked the way Babies made me think about what babies need and what parents give. The movie doesn’t supply answers, just raw data. And lots of chubby cheeks and sweet lips and precious little arms and legs. And tenacious, curious, energetic baby minds. Whether on the dusty sand in Africa or the hardwood floor in San Francisco, babies are constantly seeking to learn. Babies documents that search for knowledge, which occurs every instant of every baby’s day.


11 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Tatiana said,

    You have piqued my curiosity; I’m going to have to see it! Thanks!

  2. 3

    Cristina said,

    My husband took me to see Babies the Saturday before Mother’s Day. I loved it! I spent the rest of the weekend talking about it to my kids. I loved the contrasts of the different cultures! When Hattie fell in the sand, my husband leaned over and whispered, “Her father is going to be in so much trouble when her mom sees this movie!” LOL!

    I found it interesting how much more present the fathers were in the more modern countries, and loved the sense of community in Africa. Ponijao was passed all over the place! Excellent documentary!

    Peace and Laughter!

    • 4

      sgaissert said,

      What a lovely Mother’s Day present, to see “Babies.” The contrasts were so interesting, and I liked the way we got to discover them on our own, without narration. I’ve read some criticism of the movie, because it doesn’t explain the African culture and why the fathers are absent, and because it doesn’t give more context for everything—but I think that’s part of the point: it’s meant to be experienced as is! Thanks for writing . . . Susan

  3. 5

    Cristina said,

    Thinking about that criticism, it is filmed from the perspective of the babies. Babies simply observe their world, they don’t question the intricacies. This is what their life is, whether being taken to classes, strapped to mommy’s back while she works, or tethered to the bed leg while the parents took care of their animals. They all seemed well loved and cared for. It was refreshing not to have some voice-over explaining everything and imposing their views on this film.

  4. 7

    We enjoyed the movie, too. Great review, small quibble- Ponijao from Namibia is a girl.=)

  5. 9

    Grin. It matters to Ponijao, but I don’t think she’ll be offended as it’s unlikely she will read your post. We initially thought she was a boy, too.
    I wondered about that assumption when her mother gave her the can to carry on her head, because I believe carrying loads on the head is a female role, and the culture is gender sensitive. I looked it up to be sure when got home.

    • 10

      sgaissert said,

      I like that you wondered and looked it up. I like that better than if the narrator had told you. And—boy or girl—wasn’t Ponijao adorable?

  6. 11

    Sarah said,

    I enjoyed it immensely, and I watched it twice more. Once with my 5-year-old son and once with our roommate.

    I have to say… the cat in the Mongolian house was INCREDIBLY tolerant. Poor thing tolerated all kinds of mean behavior from those boys. I know my cat would have at least swatted at the kid for pulling her ears like that, but theirs just kinda put up with it. The American and Japanese cats seemed to give the babies a fairly wide berth most of the time

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