April 13, 2011
Babies is a documentary that aims to challenge paradigms and cultural stereotypes across the world, French filmmaker Thomas Balmès told an audience at Brown earlier this month.
Known for using his lens to explore cultures over a 20-year career, Balmès was speaking after screening his film during a week-long visit on campus as the Lawton Wehle Fitt ’74 Artist-in-Residence.
Babies follows the early developmental stages of four children in different parts of the world: Bayar in rural Mongolia, Ponijao in Namibia, Hattie in San Francisco, and Mari in Japan.
The film quickly stands out for its lack of the voice-over narration typical in documentaries. Instead, it is a continuous collection of picture, sound, and video footage capturing the everyday experiences of its infant subjects, whom Balmès followed from birth until they were almost two years old.
The film flows seamlessly from scenes of one baby to the next in a starkly different, distant part of the world.
One segment shows Namibian children lying in dust, drinking from a stagnant stream, licking a dog’s tongue, a mother breastfeeding two babies at once. Another shows the Mongolian baby fighting with a sibling, joining a father in a river bath, hanging out with a pair of young goats outdoors, and in the end, seeming to try to ride one of them. The scenes showing the baby in San Francisco are less animated – barely set outdoors – but the baby is often fixated with toys, muttering new words, making unintelligible conversation with her mother, or held by an adoring grandparent.
According to Balmès, the movie took him 400 days to shoot over two years, and he spent two weeks in each country at a time. He added that he spent a lot of time around the babies, shooting, and that it was “weird not to interfere” when they cried or needed help.
Balmès said the movie’s lack of narration made it “something that can stand on its own,” with the subjects doing the talking. Furthermore, in choosing to focus on the remote Imba community in Namibia, he showed a place whose people are “totally disconnected” from cities and the mainstream, while also being happy with their way of life.
The filmmaker noted the attention his film has widely received, adding that it should challenge viewers to look at child development and parenting in a new way.
“Even I am changing the way I do parenting,” said Balmès, a father of three.
During his visit at Brown, Balmes also screened a new film he has a produced, A Normal Life: Chronicles of a Young Sumo Wrestler, taught a master class, and advised students planning documentary work for this coming summer as part of the AT&T New Media Fellowship Program. His visit was supported by the Creative Arts Council, Global Conversation, Global Media Project, and Watson Institute.
By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Dominic Mhiripiri ‘12