Sunday, May 9, 2010
For Mother's Day, my daughter and I went to see the new French movie, Babies, made by well-known international filmmaker, Thomas Balmes.
It was a rather remarkable and engaging "nature" film about the first year in the life of four infants from Namibia, Japan, the United States, and Mongolia. I say "nature" film because there is no narration in the film and the focus is at baby/subject-level. The focus means that you spend so much more time "seeing" the babies as unique and different personalities, even though the cultural content of their development is so radically different. The least ethnocentric of viewers will, probably, walk away with glimpses of Hattie's (U.S) calm, quiet self; Mari's (Japan) drive and determination and resultant frustration(my daughter shared this: the blowing of fuses when motor skills don't match internal desires?);Ponijao's (Namibia)languid curiosity, and Bayar's (Mongolia) limitless happiness and charm.
There is ample fodder for judgement and I imagine the less anthropologically-initiated will be shocked at the visible dirt which is the Namibian existence, the casual breast-feeding of Ponijao's mother, and the human/animal intimacies of life amongst pastoralists (both Namibia and Mongolia).
I have to admit to being less than pleased with one aspect of the film. Balmes has stated in interviews that he sought to show different societies in an almost hierarchy of relationships with nature from the stark existence of Namibia to the crowded quarters of Japan. He succeeds in that vision but the cost is a depiction of "Africa" which is going to be strongly re-enforcing the "primitive". The bleak Namibian desert landscape, the pastoral life, and remote location coupled with images of Ponijao casually picking a discarded bone from a pile of dirt and refuse and chewing on it in her first few months of life is really reinforcing the "savage" and not exactly a representational picture of life in Africa.
But the nice bit: pay close attention for you shall see that Ponijao is never alone. Surrounded constantly by her extended "family" it is impossible to determine the relations of the women and children who love and care for her. (Side note: no father is ever seen.) That resonates Africa for me. I was grateful for the short time my own daughter got (at the age of 4) to run with a pack and be cared for as one of many.
And then, I comforted, myself on the stereotype front, with a giggle: "we", the collective American generic, must suffer the vision of little Hattie struggling to escape baby sing-along with weird mother-nature-earth chant. While the group's sing-along earth mother offers a chant to the Earth and Dad follows obediently along, Hattie flees the circle and pulls determinedly at the door. My sentiments, exactly, Hattie. San Francisco: need I say more. You won't find that stuff in Texas or New Jersey. LOL.
Unlike, Ponijao, Hattie spends much time alone with one parent. Not for her the touch--loving and abusive--of an older sibling or playmate. Nor for Mari either. Our "developed" babies interact in carefully structured worlds isolated in strollers, distracted by toys, lectured at with books with titles like "No Hitting", rather than rolling in the earth and pulling the penis of our older brother.
I am uncertain what students might take away from the film but I can see some rather extensive discussions revolving around all this issues. One way to "get into" them is probably to approach the discussion of concepts of safety and danger. I imagine most students will be instantly struck with the different standards of supervision the different babies experience. The film maker has commented on his own role in the process; having been asked the inevitable "when would you have interfered" when faced with toddlers tangled in between the legs of goats and cattle.
There is a rather extensive support site for the film here. And go see it. Its a really nice change of pace in a hostile and unhappy world.