Nature films have been overtaken by reality TV -- even the nature films on nature channels. As a result, Shark Week is no longer exciting enough with just sharks; it also requires breathlessly melodramatic narration, telling us why the exciting footage is so, well, exciting.
Which is what makes Babies such a treat. Aside from the fact that it's about an intrinsically interesting subject, filmmaker Thomas Balmes takes the approach of making this documentary -- about four different babies, from birth to first steps -- like an old-school nature film, one that allows its images and characters to tell the story for it.
Balmes and his producers found four families -- one each in the veldt of Namibia, the plains of Mongolia, the high-rises of Tokyo and the cozier urban enclave of San Francisco. Then he and his camera spent 400 days over the course of two years, filming these babies through various stages of development through that first year and beyond.
Their circumstances couldn't be more different. Little Ponijao seems to live within an extended matriarchy, involving his mother, aunts and various sisters and brothers, in mud huts on the veldt. Bayarjargal has Mongolian herders for parents and lives in a portable yurt, along with dogs, cats, chickens, goats and sheep.
Mari lives a fast-paced life in Tokyo, with playgroups and time spent with both parents. Hattie's Bay Area parents also seem to indulge her, while trying to live an Earth-friendly existence.
There is no story other than the babies experiencing the world. But even in its relatively brief (82 minutes) running time, you can see amazing changes in these tots.
What's startling is the degree to which you can see them absorbing their experiences. From a surprisingly young age, as their focal point lengthens and they become aware of their surroundings, they are ingesting information, stored away until their hands and legs are suitably operational to explore further. What happens if I pull the cat's tail? What do my toes taste like? What's that over there?
That's the scope of a baby's world, but it grows daily, as this film shows. Their awareness of their parents, their siblings, their surroundings and toys; it is like a daily explosion of learning, most amazingly of retained learning. There's also, from a dazzlingly young age, a sense of entitlement to the world around by the baby. Infancy is a constant struggle to experience everything you can see, to put everything in your mouth at least once, before your mother tells you not to.
That's what Babies understands and what it shows. And it does it without a single voice addressing the audience in any way. The producers don't try to define or analyze or examine the babies' behavior in the way that too many nature films do -- hello, Meerkat Manor? It just lets these children be in front of the camera, within those moments when they're left to their own devices, as well as when they're interacting with their parents.
Once they start to talk, of course, it's a whole different ballgame. But as Babies shows, these kids have a well-developed language of their own, long before the words start to come.
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