The French director speaks to SBS about his documentary on the early lives of four little 'uns.
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4 May 2011 - 4:36 PM  UPDATED 4 Nov 2016 - 1:30 PM

Some critics have already cast Babies as a 'simple' film, a sort of YouTube visual doddle on a big budget. The premise has an immediacy that's instantly riveting: French filmmaker Thomas Balmes set out with a high-def digital camera and a tiny crew to record the day-to-day experience of four babies in four very different environments – San Francisco in the USA, Opuwo in Namibia, Tokyo in Japan and a place near Bayanchandmani in Mongolia – from birth to first steps.

Balmes' style is highly formal, with an unmoving camera, carefully composed frames and very long takes. It's a style, which he readily admits, makes conscious demands on the patience of the audience since it eschews many of the conventions of the documentary form. There is, for instance, no narration and what little dialogue there is occurs mostly off-screen and is so quiet it's barely there.

As Balmes told SBS, the movie's finished form differs from the original concept, which came from famed French filmmaker Alain Chabat (who ended up producing). Balmes did not want any 'story' as such and the treatment of the 'characters' – the parents, even the babies themselves, is oblique and deliberately obscure. As for the sociological content, Balmes says that the film sets out to challenge first world assumptions about third world lifestyles. Critics have mistaken the dirt, the ambience and the rugged terrain of the sequences set in Mongolia and Namibia as an indication that the babies will grow into poverty. This is not so, according to Balmes: “The families shown are not poor – the family in Namibia have two hundred cattle,” he says.

The style is so 'open' and free to interpretation that a number of writers have seen satirical possibilities in the movie. In one scene, baby Hattie's parents in San Francisco take her to what seems like a retro-hippy encounter session where the constituents sing a lyric that goes: “The earth is our mother/ we must take care of her/ hey yana, ho yana, hey yan, yan.” Balmes cuts away from the adults to a shot of the baby – as it heads straight for the door! Hattie is raised with parents who refer to books when issues arise; in Mongolia and Namibia, the kids chase live stock and suck on rocks. In Tokyo, baby Mari appears transfixed by technology.

 

Balmes explains that the point of the film is not so much to analyse parenting or child rearing in a specific social context. He says he wanted the audience to regress. “For me, the form became as important as the subject itself,” he says. “You're living the experience with the baby.”

The photography has that all-seeing, highly sensuous quality of scientific programs: the soft skin of the babies, the sparkle in their eyes… but it's also keyed, Balmes says, to accurately reflect the experience of each of the separate environments. In Mongolia and Namibia, the light is strong, uplifting. In Tokyo, where Balmes filmed the family of Mari in small high-rise apartment, the light is soft, cool. In San Francisco, the mood is bright, but mooted.

“We used a very low tripod. In shooting this way, I often cut off the heads of the parents in the shot and only very rarely do you see a whole body… even when we were planning the film we decided that the lighting, framing all worked so that we – the audience – would start to see the world as babies do.” Balmes says part of his thinking about the way the film would look was about trying to get as far from TV as possible.

"We decided that the lighting, framing all worked so that we – the audience – would start to see the world as babies do."

The technique, especially the use of very long takes, has the effect of pushing the viewer to search the frame for interest; rather than have the filmmaker make all the choices for the audience. “We started with takes that were even longer,” says Balmes, “but we thought that would be too much.” 

Still, Balmes admits that the technique creates an anguished state in the viewer where it is not quite possible to forget the conditioned nurturing we all share when the vulnerable become exposed to a perceived threat.

In one scene with Poni, the baby from Namibia, she is scrapping about in the dirt amongst a herd of cows or another memorable, but less hair-raising episode, with a goat. “We planned and planned but you know I could not predict any of the shots we had in the film. I did not know that while Poni was bathing a goat would take a drink from the tub!”

 

Budgeted at 4m Euros, filming Babies was, Balmes says, a complex operation. The crew had 400 shooting days over a two-year period to cover the action. Each child was born six weeks apart and Balmes would fly between his home base in Paris to whatever continent, spend two weeks filming, and then return.

Casting the film was perhaps an even greater challenge than the filming itself. In each place Balmes says he applied a different approach. “In Mongolia, we saw about 50 families before choosing [baby] Bayarjargal's parents and in Tokyo, it was very difficult,” he says. “It was important for us to shoot in a high rise in the centre of the city and we ended up interviewing very few families because they live in tiny spaces and most of them did not want to have a French director and a film crew.”

Each of the families selected were compensated to appear in the film and each were eventually chosen on the basis of what Balmes calls, “a very loving energy.”

“I wanted a real quality of love,” he says, “in common with all the parents… they had to really want to have a child, so that the filming would not add to the [day to day] problems of raising a kid.”

The Babies' camera investigates the minutiae of 'baby' experience, but only up to a point. There are no soiled nappies or pools of vomit, breast milk stains or public 'nappy malfunctions'. Even so, Balmes says that the film doesn't aim to sanitise the messy facts of life in the raising of an infant – it's more about trying to experience the world in a fundamental way. He adds that even if the film were more explicit that may have created problems anyway. “In the US, we had to remove a shot of one of the mother's using a breast pump so as to get the rating we needed,” he says. “With American cinema so full of violence, I think this is ironic.”

Watch 'Babies' now at SBS On Demand