May 14, 2010


At film school (UCLA) they taught us that we have to "make the audience care" about our characters. Well, with the new documentary "Babies," it's a no-brainer. From the womb to fifteen months old, four babies' lives are chronicled: Two from close-to-nature cultures (Namibia and Mongolia), two from technological environments (Japan and USA). Ponijao from Namibia, Bayar from Mongolia, Mari from Japan, Hattie from the USA. (Bayar is the only boy.)

On the heels of popular nature documentaries (kicked off by the successful "March of the Penguins") like "Earth" and "Oceans," "Babies" could almost be seen as a "nature documentary," meaning that human beings are a part of Creation—albeit the crown and wedding of matter-spirit/heaven-earth, but still a part (something that those who exalt nature-over-man or man-over-nature miss, to grievous results). It's very telling that Mari and Hattie spend most of their time indoors, learning about the world from books and technology, while Ponijao and Bayar spend most of their time outdoors, wrangling with the elements. One of my favorite scenes is when Bayar uses a reclining baby goat to get on his feet, and then promptly (inadvertently) steps on the goat's head. Needless to say, there are many patient animals in this film. In fact, there is A LOT of animal interaction, by the filmmakers' distinct choice. Why? Because there's only one thing cuter than babies: babies with animals? Or is there an attempt being made here to place man in his "habitat" which includes other living beings?

Ponijao and Bayar and their parents look so comfortable in their own skin, the Japanese family's lifestyle is so highly stylized (in that wonderfully clean-swept, minimalistic, simple, serene, tight, bright Japanese aesthetic) and organized that it looks appealing, the way of life of Hattie from San Francisco (which we have to admit is "us") feels the most forced and out-of-touch somehow. I found myself thinking "thank God" that these other "more human" cultures still exist today. Not "more primitive": more HUMAN. I have to look more into this because I am also a big technophile and total cliff dweller (I LOVE living in a building in the big city). How can we live very humanly, very well WITH our technology?

What is the point of this documentary? There is none. Which is extremely fitting, isn't it? Human beings are ends in themselves. We do not serve a "purpose," and neither does this movie need to, as some movie reviewers have suggested. Is it voyeuristic? You bet. Aren't all the visual arts? The show-stealing Bayar is almost four now and has already commented on his own movie: "This is a film about me, the sky [he's not kidding--he lives on an awe-inducing panoramic plain], and how my big brother has been beating me up!" [He's not kidding about the poundings, either.]

But voyeuristic is not exploitative. What we have here is babies AS babies, in all their shaky ineptitude, helplessness and heart-melting capabilities. One is really able to observe "the life of babies," the developing little inner life, especially when it comes to conflict! There are baby fights, baby learning curves, baby frustration, baby milestones and baby triumphs. We CAN identify with these pint-sized personalities and imagine ourselves in those tiny shoes (or not: clothes are also optional), back when everything was new and we understood precious little and had to learn fast.

The Moms are pretty extraordinary (we see much more of them than the Dads who are also great caregivers). We experience the Moms' incredible gentleness and innate understanding of exactly what each little speechless one needs.

"Babies" is arranged loosely according to themes: music, bath time, cats, crawling, standing, walking, exploring, eating (this includes toilet paper a la carte). "Babies" is devoid of chatter, even from the adults. We get to live in the wee ones' wordless world for a short spell, and take life all in, all at once, all over again.

As someone once said: "Babies—what a great way to start people."


--Why is "Babies" not in May have something to do with the fact that Focus Features did NOT want "Babies" going viral (!!!), to preserve the movie-going experience(!!!)

--Another favorite scene: Bayar's Mom sprays his face with her breast milk and gently cleans off the dirt.

--Bayar—in his birthday suit—maneuvers himself atop an upturned tin basin in the midst of a herd of cows, dwarfing him. Hard to believe that the tiny, mostly hairless creature in the amusing shot is actually the master of the universe!

--LOTS of breastfeeding.

--Most fascinating culture: Mongolian!

--Favorite Mom: Ponijao's

--Prettiest Mom: Mari's

--Funniest baby: Ponijao

--Funniest scene: (there are tons, of course) The baby fight—opening scene

--"Babies" reminds you what a miracle it is that more kids don't polish themselves off before the age of two. All it takes is looking away from them for one second for them to engage in instant-death-dealing behavior. Thank God for guardian angels.

--Some of the greatest shots are when it seems that only the camera is looking.

--Most exotic scene: The rooster on Bayar's bed.

--Earth mother award: Ponijao's mom

--It's amazing how small children sense the slightest affront to their human dignity.

--They have Legos in Mongolia.

--Where would I choose to be a baby? My own culture (USA) even though we're totally neurotic. It's too late for me. I'm just so used to it. Second choice: Japan, even though Mongolia would probably be the healthiest choice.

--If I had to choose a mom for myself? Ponijao's

--Hardest place to be a baby: USA

--Least number of playdates: Mongolia. Too isolated.

--Baby with most complex (or perplexed) facial expression: Hattie

--Happiest baby: Bayar

--Must-read book to go with "Babies": "The Passion of the Infant Jesus" by Carryl Houselander (aka "Wood of the Cradle, Wood of the Cross," "The Little Way of the Infant Jesus"). Her original title is best: "Passion of the Infant Jesus." It isn't easy being green.

--Oriental rugs in each home (except Namibia)

--Most picturesque home: Mongolia


  1. Having read your review I feel as if I have viewed the documentary. I particularly like your point about guardian angels.

  2. I wish we had it here nearer to central IL! It looks great, and thanks for your (as usual) detailed and helpful review.

  3. I can't get little Bayar out of my head. He's so amazing. Definitely going to "be something" someday. Maybe another Genghis Kahn? ha ha ha

  4. I hate babies movies they are so so so so so stupid...that can't even be called movies for kids...