Almost any parent will tell you that children can be wild beasts.
But filmmakers Alain Chabat and Thomas Balmès take that idea and run with it in their new film “Babies,” essentially a nature documentary recording the first year of life of four infants in widely diverse cultures and circumstances.
There is no sonorous narration or thundering music or even much dialogue in this film, which uses observational techniques typical of many wildlife films to chronicle the lives of Ponijao, a doe-eyed girl in a loincloth growing up in the traditional Himba tribe of Namibia; Bayarjargal, the impish son of Mongolian cattle ranchers; Mari, trying to thrive in frantic, overcrowded Tokyo withher perennially working parents; and Hattie, the daughter of hyper-attentive parents in San Francisco.
“My idea was at the end, you’d get the feeling of what it means to be a human being and born in the 21st century on this earth, with a range of different ways of living which should be metaphorical for many countries,” says Balmès, a very old-school, strictly noninvasive documentarian who’s made films on Kenyan peacekeepers during the Bosnia crisis, mad cow disease in India and a mobile phone factory inspector in China. “I wanted to have a diversity which wouldn’t just be geographical but a diversity in the relationship to modernity, from the most simple way of living, disconnected from any technology, to the almost science fiction atmosphere of Japan.”
The idea for “Babies” brewed almost a dozen years in the head of Chabat, a French comedian known as the Jim Carrey of France and who had a recent turn as Napoleon in the second “Night at the Museum.” Although he’s not a documentarian, Chabat ultimately found the financing and hired Balmès, who in particular wanted to focus on “loving families. Families who really wanted to have this child and give him or her love.”
Balmès hired four casting directors on four continents and narrowed his potential subjects to two pregnant women per country. “I met them some times for a few hours, or sometimes I’d spend a few days. I’d spend a couple of weeks in each country,” says Balmès, who also had to make sure that it would be physically possible to film. “I met many women in Japan where the living space was so small that no one could bring in a camera.” The filmmakers also wound up choosing families who weren’t beset by a day-to-day struggle for existence. In fact, though the Mongolians live in a yurt and the African family lives in a dirt hut, they are relatively well off in the context of their own cultures, both with major cattle holdings. Balmès filmed for two years, hip-hopping from country to country every two weeks or so and accumulating 100 hours of footage on each family.
“Sometimes I was just observing and shooting for as much as two weeks with very little content I could edit. I was looking for small miracles which you cannot set up or organize,” said Balmès, who worked with a minuscule crew and translators in every country “Not a single scene of the film could I have written. Usually when documentaries are being made these days, they’re a little manipulated, with very little space left to the viewer to create his own conclusions “
Child-rearing certainly appears more easygoing in the third world. The perennially curious Mongolian infant Bayar appears to spend many of the early months of his life left alone in the yurt, tethered on a leash, while his parents attend to the cattle. And later, he consorts happily and freely with the barnyard animals. The Himba child, Ponijao, lives an almost entirely communal existence as the youngest of nine siblings. “I was fascinated with these nine kids. They were so independent, and they rarely fought each other,” says Balmès, who stationed himself outside the hut in an RV. “How much trust they got from their parents, the mother, she’s there, but she’s leaving a lot of space and freedom for the kids to see the world by themselves.” Not surprisingly, this Himba family has little contact with modern technology.
“We are much more stressed out than this family in Namibia,” adds Chabat. “They had a super peaceful and joyful mood. “
By contrast, Balmès felt the most sympathy for the Japanese child, Mari, whose personality seems the most muted, in part he suggests, because of how she must live in a tiny space. “The Japanese way of living is not designed for a child. People are working like hell in Tokyo, very long hours, seven days a week. The situation with Mari is that her parents are almost workaholic people. You can feel that. Even when the parents are there, they’re not really there. You see her in a 20-square-foot meeting room in [day care] which is filled with 10 to 15 other babies with three nurses for eight hours. It’s not easy to develop yourself surrounded by so little space.”
On Friday, Focus Features, best known for such art-house films as “Brokeback Mountain” and " Atonement,” is releasing “Babies” in more than 500 theaters, an unusually large number of screens for a documentary. “This is the craziest movie we’ve ever distributed,” says Focus Chief Executive James Schamus giddily. A friend of Chabat’s, Schamus discovered the documentary, made for between $3 million and $4 million, while it was being edited and bought the distribution rights for the United States and several other territories. “I believe in this as a movie experience. It’s real cinema.” He is also keeping his aspirations somewhat in check. “If it did one-tenth of ‘March of the Penguins’ ($127 million worldwide), I’d be the happiest distributor this summer.”
This said, don’t expect “Babies 2.” Originally Chabat had wanted to film the babies until they turned 3, but that turned out to be impossible. “But around 18 months, the babies are beginning to be camera aware. They started to look at the camera and smile. So we were not simply witnesses anymore,” he says with a laugh. “Suddenly it’s another story.”