Sunday, May 9, 2010

Babies: The Film

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.



tina said...

The title itself turned me off...actually more like scared kryptonite.

Pamthropologist said...

Interestingly enough, I think one of the issues to explored is what it means to have so much invested in the one child model. And what is the ripple effect to the rest of society and maybe to those who don't want to invest that much to create the perfect "No Hitting" child.....See, I made you academic. BTW didn't see Angelina in the film or the theater.

Pamthropologist said...

Changed the blog post title for you. I aim to please.

tina said...

LOL....thanks,Pam! I would like to think that the French would have the sense not to put St. Angie Jo and Billy Goat Brad in this film.

stayforaspell said...

Dear Dr. "Pamthrologist", thank you for this post! (and thank you for not abandoning this blog!) I enjoy your creative and yet realistic perspectives on anthropology. About the *Babies* film (I watched the trailer): I found the American parents' interview provided an interesting observation to parenting in the US., i.e. US parents feel more unhinged and tend to question their own parenting instinct. Cultural norms that aim to boost intelligence perhaps do increase sexual fitness, but over-parenting can certainly inhibit child development. I am a US expat and have raised all my 4 kids in a more relaxed way (no planned play dates, no interfering when they fight). I am also a shiny packaged product of haplogroup B, where I think "helicopter parenting" is perhaps less prevalent. I hope this lovely film comes to our city soon, my kids would love it!

Pamthropologist said...

Thank you, stayforaspell.

I see Babies was on Oprah so maybe that will spark a wider distribution for the film.

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting and i think its worth watching the whole move. Its available on this site for free:

Emily said...

I actually did show this to my Intro to Cultural Anth class and it went well. I used it introduce the idea that childhood and parenting vary across cultures. Our discussion also delved into gender, risk, and representation (what does the director want you to take away?).
I think it worked for most students. My only hesitation with showing it again is that it takes an entire class session and I can't decide if it's worth the time it takes.

Pamthropologist said...

Emily, I showed it, as well with much the same result. I am uncertain if it was worth the cost of class time or not. The students really did enjoy it, however.

Anonymous said...

Ponijao isn't female, and it's obvious so why does your article states he's a she.

Anonymous said...

thanks for sharing.