Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Babies: A Movie Review

Here's another movie review that continues in the "grand" tradition of this blog - reviewing movies that are really not that new.  Babies is a documentary film that came out in 2010 and is about four babies' lives from "first breath to first step", one from Namibia, one from Mongolia, one from Japan, and one from the USA.  I remember seeing reviews of this movie and thinking, "Really?"  It didn't strike me at the time that it'd be such a great concept.  I mean, I'm a mother - I watch my baby do stuff all day, and while I occasionally find it fascinating, more often than not I find it, well, normal and therefore rather boring. 

This must be one of the reasons why the director had to push this idea to several people before finding someone else willing to work with it.  It must also be one of the reasons why the videographer would travel to these places and spend days there, only to return with one "good" short worth putting in the film.  (Though of course, this isn't unlike the process of writing - I aim to write a couple pages a day, but much of it is definitely not staying in the book...)

I was all set to view the documentary as some kind of social commentary: you know, Western industrialized nations versus less industrialized nations and how babies do, comparatively.  Or, people with "stuff" versus people without "stuff".  Or, time spent versus lack of time spent.  The Japanese and American mothers do very similar things, for instance: song and dance classes for their young babies; day care situations, et cetera.

About ten minutes into it, I stopped thinking in this way and just started enjoying the process of watching these babies.  The director creatively pairs film shorts together and it makes a satisfying collage of love and care for the smallest members of our human clan. (Or, should I even say, it makes an interesting board book movie?  My 3 month-old "watched" parts of this film and was fascinated.) 

The US family is a "green" ecologically-minded family; the Japanese family lives in one of the busiest sectors of Tokyo; the Mongolian family is a relatively well-off herding family, and the Namibian family seems mostly to consists of mothers and children - the men are off herding and farming.  It's an eclectic group; you wouldn't expect to find much in common necessarily, except that these babies are loved and cared for with very obvious joy. 

Viewers who have always been curious about breastfeeding will see fantastic images of babies nursing, including the Namibian mother tandem nursing.  And, I was curious about how people who don't use diapers manage - very well, as it happens.  

This is also a funny film - as one might imagine with babies, there are plenty of moments that made me want to laugh.  One is when the American baby is eating a banana and very painstakingly picks off each bit of the peel before eating it.  Then she bites into the wrong end and finds herself chewing on that bad-tasting end bit of bananas, and spits that out.  Another is the moment when the Monogolian baby, swaddled and lying on a bed, all of a sudden finds himself surrounded by a rooster that is at least twice his size.  The rooster just dances around the bed.  Still another is when the Namibian baby has learned to walk and starts balancing something (the end of a plastic jug, I think?) on her head - I was highly impressed by her walking and balancing skills.

Ultimately, the theme of the movie seems to be one that contributes an argument to the Western "mommy wars" problem.  (So okay, I am going to find a point here - but not the one I was originally looking for...)  Here was an array of parents and cultures and parenting styles, and they all work.  The Namibian mother was the one who was most obviously with her baby all the time, in a very relaxed way - more relaxed than I think sometimes the pressure of being a "stay at home mom" feels in Western culture. But her husband and sons were often gone many days out of the month.  "Work out of the home" moms were represented by the Western mothers.  The Japanese mother worked out of the home and so we saw a day care scene but we also see her and her husband taking care of the baby at home.  The American parents tried to work as a team, and it seemed that they did more trading off of parental duties, around their office work, than the others. 

And a different way of running the family shows up in the the Mongolian family.  They, too, tried to pair up their parenting, probably by necessity.  Both the mother and father were doing work with the herding animals and so would intersperse child care with animal care.  That meant the baby was left alone fairly often - and we see him crawling around outside, enjoying the weather, and investigating the broad world while the parents are off at some distance.

Maybe the point was: you do what you have to do to make a living and care for the kids.  None of these represents an "ideal" for parenthood except for the common thread of desiring to care for the babies so that they are healthy, have some freedom to learn to crawl and walk and talk, and that there is something joyful about nurturing a baby. 

The movie is not really about the parents, though, but the babies themselves and that is ultimately what makes one become mesmerized: their extraordinary growth, their wonder, their joy.

One final funny moment, for me anyway: at one point, the American father takes his daughter to a song time, where they sing 'The Earth is our Mother." The chant threw me off at first because it starts before you see that we're in the US and I thought, "Huh, this must be in one of the non-American countries - maybe they do chant there."  And then I was laughing at myself because I saw the American father, AND I remembered singing this song probably when I was three years old myself.  I think of it as a very, very "hippy" song.  But what made it even funnier is that the baby stands up, walks out of the singing circle and tries to open the door.  "Let me out, please!"  Exactly what I'd be doing anyway, if I found myself having to sing that song again.  (Hey, I like being ecologically friendly but I'm not sure that's what this song is really about....)

Anyway, if you haven't had the chance to see Babies, I highly recommend finding a copy somewhere.  It will give you hope - a good thing to have these days.

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