This is not the review I thought I’d write. I’d planned on discussing the cuteness of the BABIES and Vanity Fair’s assertion that this is the Era of Cute (with the Obama administration being the “first cute presidency”) and a friend of mine who relaxes by watching youtube clips of baby animals (I do something similar with late night viewings of America’s Funniest Home Videos). But then I watched the movie, and, while undoubtedly cute, I ended up seeing the BABIES in an unexpected way: I ended up seeing them as humans.
BABIES, a documentary by French director Thomas Balmès and playing at the Cumberland, presents the first year of four infants from starkly different parts of the world: Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the United States. Balmès bravely chose not to have narration and the film has been criticized for not placing the children into cultural contexts. But by not allowing a disembodied grown-up voice to tell us what we’re seeing, the viewer, with nothing to focus on except the infants’ expressive faces, gradually comes to see the world from the BABIES’ points of view. When the little boy from Mongolia’s mother scolds him for spilling a bucket of water inside the yurt, his face fills with utter incomprehension and you understand that he has no idea why he’s in trouble. In one of the best sequences, the little Japanese girl tries repeatedly to push a toy stick through a wooden loop, each failure met with a dramatic cry, the toys flung behind her and rolling around on the floor in exaggerated desperation. Then she gets up and tries again, only to repeat her operatic reactions. A valuable life lesson. Of course, BABIES are often unexplainable, and what causes the self-satisfied smiles of Ponijao, the Namibian baby, will forever remain a mystery.
Now that I’ve brought him up, Ponijao is awesome. He’s not just cute (look at him!), but intelligent, inquisitive, joyful, funny and a bit of a trouble-maker. Whereas the American and Japanese BABIES are coddled indoors, Ponijao craws all around the camp site (and, spoiler alert, eventually walks, with authoritive arm-swinging), putting things in his mouth, bugging the dog, drinking the creek water and improvising some baby-yoga. While he appears to be given free reign, he is under the constant eyes of the tribe’s women. Still, it reminded me of Dervla’s observation that African babies, opposed to Western babies who are kept sheltered and stupid, “know what’s going on.”
BABIES serves a greater purpose than to make audiences giggle at adorable shenanigans. It reminds you how early we develop personalities and how, while starting off similarly, our cultures quickly lead us in disparate directions. And, despite being cute, BABIES are people too.