Movie News & Reviews

'Babies': The universality of infants and mothering

There's not a lot of novelty to the notion that mewling, puking, peeing infants are the same the world over. Of course they are. Been there, done that, have the poop-stained T-shirt to prove it.

They're universally picky eaters, even in their breast-feeding days. Moms burp them the same way from Namibia to Mongolia, Tokyo to San Francisco. They teach them to walk and keep them out of harm's way even if, in some cultures, their notion of "out of harm's way" wouldn't pass muster with the alphabet soup of federal agencies that act as surrogate moms here in the Western world.

Babies is a French-made documentary about babies from those four corners of the world — Namibia, on the dusty, fly-covered plains of Africa; Mongolia, on the dusty, fly-covered steppes of Asia; Tokyo; and San Francisco. With no narration, no subtitles and little language at all, this makes for a charming visual contrast in the ways of getting a child through that first year of life.

That first year, a wise father-friend once said, "You're on constant suicide watch." And that view, with all the technology from birth onward to back it up, shows up in the scenes from San Francisco, where Hattie comes into this world. It's reinforced in Tokyo, where Mari is surrounded by toys and goes from breast feeding to sushi in short order.

But in Africa, Ponijao pounds rocks in imitation of mom's grain-grinding, slurps water directly out of rivers, pops everything and anything into his mouth and is none the worse for wear. Doting moms there offer bare breasts, break up fights and demonstrate that it really does "take a village."

In Mongolia, bundled up Bayar rides home from the hospital on a motorcycle with mom and dad — not a helmet among them. They set up their yurt, and Bayar endures sibling rivalry — and the cat endures his yanking and poking.

Cats and dogs all over the world suffer the newborns with the same resigned patience. And big brothers jab or yank the new sibling until it cries and then don the universal "Who me?" look.

Director Thomas Balmes and his editors find moments of humor in "discoveries" or the unfettered urinating of a baby brought up without diapers.

But the message here is contained in the biggest laugh in Babies: affluent, coddled San Francisco Hattie's learning the "Earth is our mother" song at a mother-child sing-along. Look for an American child-rearing cliché, and you're sure to find one.

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