Tarererua, a young Namibian woman, scrubs her newborn daughter, Ponijao, with red ochre. The two sit in a hut in Opuwo, a town of roughly 12,000 in northwest Namibia. They are members of the pastoral Himba tribe, which spans the arid plateau off the country’s Skeleton Coast. The land is vast, dusty and largely infertile.
Thomas Balmès, the French documentary filmmaker, trained his camera on this pair for nearly two years, and could not have asked for a more striking contrast. Ponijao’s personality crackles from the moment she is born, standing out against the harsh backdrop. She laughs, claps, dances and seems determined to walk before she is ready. Eventually she succeeds, in one of the film’s triumphant moments.
The milestone is then repeated in Tokyo, Mongolia and San Francisco, where Balmès finds the rest of his “cast.” His film, “Babies,” follows four newborns from birth to first steps, framed by the neon cityscape of Tokyo, the rolling grasslands of Mongolia and the sparkling coastline of San Francisco. The parents, for the most part, remain faceless.
Their absence is intentional. With “Babies,” Balmès focuses his attention on the parents in the audience, if not those in Mongolia or Japan. The film, he said, is an exercise in “reverse anthropology.” His aim is to spark introspection among his viewers rather than scrutinize the choices of his subjects.
“Mostly, you’re going to see yourself, and you’re going to see yourself differently by challenging who you are and how you are behaving,” Balmès said in a telephone interview. “I don’t want to add so much a conclusion or a message of what the people are going to understand or change in their daily lives. But maybe they are going to challenge a few things that they do.”
The film, which has no narration and few voices other than those of the babies, is Balmès’ answer to mainstream documentaries, which he believes tend to moralize or provoke in order to attract investors and crowds. (“Babies” was produced by the independent company of French comedian Alain Chabat, who originated the idea and asked Balmès to direct.)
“This is such an adventurous process and a kind of tricky way of dealing with this media,” Balmès said. “No big studio would get involved in something that you do not know what you’re going to get at the end of the process.”
The cost of Balmès’ approach, though, is the inability to explore more deeply the obvious disparities that exist between families in Africa and more developed parts of the world. Some cultural conventions also go unexplained. The red ochre, for example, turns out to be for bathing.
The ultimate message of “Babies” is one of shared experience: Despite their differences, families from across the world encounter similar hurdles and achieve similar triumphs.
But the disparities between those families are impossible to ignore.
In Namibia, as much as half the population lives below the poverty line. The infant mortality rate in Mongolia is more than 14 times that of Japan. And in parts of both countries, many households lack access to clean drinking water.
One might leave “Babies” wondering how these problems influence parents’ child-rearing decisions — how Tarererua safeguards Ponijao from the spread of HIV. Or how Mandakh, the Mongolian mother, secures clean drinking water for her son, Bayar.
Balmès acknowledges that his goal was not to tackle these problems, but to offer a glimpse into how children in loving, supportive families live in different parts of the world. Those common experiences will warm viewers’ hearts. They may also raise a few questions. (Is the library of Baby Einstein DVDs really necessary? Are you being overprotective if you make your child wear a “safety harness” at the playground?)
But “Babies” is less likely to provoke serious thought about how best to improve conditions for children like Ponijao, or how the world might encourage her obvious creativity and intellectual curiosity. The film does not set out to ask those questions. To some degree, Balmès avoids them.
“You cannot say that I didn’t pick four families who are all not loving their kids and doing the best for their kids. That way, I didn’t try to be manipulative,” Balmès said. “What I’m interested in is not so much to document the differences of the cultures, but much more looking at what makes them closer from one to another.”