MARY REICHARD, HOST: Today is Friday, January 11th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Mary Reichard.
NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Megan Basham reviews a movie about babies.
MEGAN BASHAM, REVIEWER: The 2010 French documentary Babies, rated PG for National Geographic-type nudity, mostly involving breastfeeding, follows the first year of four newborns. Nothing more, nothing less.
MUSIC: [Babies theme song]
Ponijao of Namibia, Bayar of Mongolia, Mari of Tokyo, and Hattie of San Francisco are born into wildly different environments with varying levels of wealth. But none seem to want for any necessity. Without indoor plumbing or, in Ponijao’s case, even diapers, the developing world infants experience the same milestones as their First World counterparts: smiling, babbling, bathing, crawling.
The film mostly presents the babies’ points of view, forgoing narration or even subtitles for the non-English dialogue. This makes for somewhat slow development. But those who embrace the leisurely pace will find their patience amply rewarded.
Director Thomas Balmès said his aim was to film four babies as he would any other species in its natural habitat, without trying to impose a narrative on their lives. “I didn’t want it to be something about social differences, something with poor people and rich people,” he said during the film’s release. He also pointed out that while some of the families may seem disadvantaged by Western standards, all are well-off within their communities. The brilliance of his approach is that the images speak for themselves, subtly challenging any number of cultural assumptions. They remind us, in this age of hyper-judgmentalism, especially against parents, that there’s more than one way to raise happy, healthy children.
MUSIC: [Native singing]
For example, it will be impossible for most Americans to watch the sanitized, ordered lives of only children Mari and Hattie without finding them somewhat uninspired compared to the other babies. For every developmental stage, Mari and Hattie’s parents offer a product or playgroup specifically designed to address it.
Like here when a teacher instructs Hattie’s mom on how to model the all-important developmental feat of pushing up on her belly—something the other babies manage without coaching.
AUDIO: And let’s try this time an airplane placement of the arms. So you can bring your arms out to the side. Press the pubic bone down. Reach out with the fingers. Keep the legs.
In contrast, Bayar crawls free on grassy plains amongst the goats while dodging his toddler brother’s torture. Ponijao dips her face in a shallow stream and wrestles with her eight brothers and sisters.
Unintended irony features heavily, as when the San Francisco parents give Hattie African-inspired toys and sing environment-worshiping songs before wiping her down with a lint brush.
Juxtaposed with the Mongolian and Namibian mothers who expertly skin livestock while their children play nearby, such gestures toward multiculturalism look a wee bit ridiculous. And it says something about how riches allow us to obsess on identity that the American parents are the only ones who carry a whiff of sitcom character about them. When little Hattie runs to the door to get away from a hippy-dippy singing group, many will want to go with her.
AUDIO: The earth is our mother, she will take care of us. Hey yanna ho.
On the other hand, the ease and prosperity enjoyed by the American and Japanese couples allow the fathers much greater involvement in their children’s lives. Whereas Hattie and Mari’s dads have ample opportunity to cuddle them, Ponijao and Bayar’s fathers are barely on screen. They’re too busy hunting and herding to provide for their families.
As U.S. birthrates have declined, it’s become somewhat trendy for so-called think pieces to disdain or even attack the image of the chubby, gurgling baby. Articles in The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and Elle magazine that complain about strollers on sidewalks and describe procreation as a pollutant indicate a kind of baby backlash.
Partly this could be a reaction to the consumer forces that have turned baby care into one more fashion exhibition. But the ugly tone of some, like when the author of a Boston Globe article suggested couples with more than two children are just showing off their wealth, suggests something else is going on.
The words “miracle” and “blessing” are used so often in reference to infants, they can start to feel empty. With simplicity and grace, Babies fills them up again.
MUSIC: [Sufjan Stevens, The Perpetual Self]
For WORLD Radio, I’m Megan Basham.