|Ponijao (right) and one of her siblings in their home on the flatlands of Namibia. (Focus Features)|
The not-so-secret lives of babies
For some reason, Thomas Balmès’s documentary “Babies’’ is being released in time for Mother’s Day weekend. Superficially, it seems like the right idea. Balmès found four perfectly adorable babies in different regions of the world — San Francisco, Mongolia, Tokyo, and the Namibian flatlands — and filmed them for about their first 12 months. But for some mothers, this will feel like work. See these children fight, cry, freak out, stare off into space, be cleaned, urinate, drink breast milk, and get a haircut. Been there, done that: Where are my flowers?
Still, as an advertisement for the wonders of figuring out how to be alive, the movie is an engaging proposition. When the film isn’t oscillating among its subjects, it’s partially juxtaposing images. In California, Hattie’s dad takes a shower with her. In Namibia, Ponijao’s mother licks her clean. Balmès’s approach is averse to cuteness for its own sake and watchful enough to leave you time to wonder about how you’d feel spending the first year of your life with a camera in your face.
Bayar in Mongolia seems like a deep thinker, lying on his back, indifferent to the rooster standing by his head. To her father’s consternation, Mari, the Tokyo baby, is a deep rattler. And Ponijao seems like a deep feeler — emotionally and tactilely. She wails when her older brother hits her and looks intense as she pushes her hands and face into barren red earth. This region of Namibia — Kunene — is the most consistently fascinating material in the film. Aside from National Geographic visits, it’s an infrequently documented part of the world. And the Himba people, who operate in tribes, wear few clothes, and spend a lot of time doing their hair, are innately cinematic. They live very low to the ground, among wildlife and livestock, and seem to get a kick out of each other. Blips of modernity — a plastic water bottle or an oil drum — appear around the homestead. Ponijao has a biological mother, but several tribeswomen are raising her and they find a source of amusement in her development.
I don’t think the movie is looking for answers; it isn’t asking any questions. But by its very nature, this is both an experiment in ontology (do babies know they’re babies?) and existentialism (are they thinking about who to be?). Balmès tries to emphasize an aspect of communal life in most of the film’s four sections. In San Francisco, he appears to fall for clichés. At some point, Hattie, a blonde with blue eyes, finds herself in a hippie drum circle (“Hey yanna, ho yanna, hey yanna ho’’ — that sort of thing). Having heard enough, she heads to the nearest exit, implying, at the very least, a future in criticism.
Wesley Morris can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.