Babies. Director Thomas Balmes: How Babies Was Made
Four babies from four countries and a whole lotta cute will invade movie screens on May 7 with the release of the new documentary Babies, by Thomas Balmes. For his project, the French director simultaneously followed the lives of infants from far-flung corners of the Earth — Ponijao (Opuwo, Namibia), Bayarjargal (Mongolia near Bayanchandmani), Mari (Tokyo, Japan) and Hattie (San Francisco, USA) — from birth to first steps. TIME talked to Balmes about the challenges of shooting subjects around the globe who prove that adorableness (as well as tantrums) have no borders. (See the TIME 100: TIME's list of the world's most influential people.)
You focused on four babies, but showed only one birth. Why?
We needed one, but having the repetition of the four of them was not interesting. I wanted to avoid comparisons and the film had to progress. We really concentrated much more on what happened later on. It's about development rather than birth.
Americans would say that Hattie's San Francisco family certainly doesn't represent American child raising.
They don't represent 250 million American people. They were representing one portion of American society. It was more interesting to use them to represent some kind of European-American people, almost. They are American, but they could be Swiss or German or French. I feel close to the American family. They came very close to the concept that I would use as a father in raising my own kids — overstimulating them, trying to fill up every single minute with some content or music or activity.
Their child yoga classes were really over-the-top.
The father was really resisting that scene. He was saying, Do you really want to follow us on that? It was amazing. We could have done a 20-minute sequence on that scene alone. It's a bit too much, but it also represents how we're trying to do our best as parents.
The film is pure, unfiltered baby with no voice over. Why?
I don't want to be too obvious about what I am showing. I want everyone to find their own message in the film. You should trust the viewer to watch the footage and just dive into that and be taken. When the footage is strong enough you don't need commentary.
Was it hard when you traveled around the world and your stars just slept?
Definitely. In fact we had to extend shooting because the babies [were] mainly sleeping. There was not much happening. It's true, the first six months were really difficult. To be in an apartment in Tokyo and a small house in San Francisco and not have that much to do — that was tough.
Did you ever think you didn't have a movie?
I never thought that, I just thought we needed more time, which is very different. I always knew we had a movie. And then everything started happening and we had great stuff.
When they move, they're tough to film. Who was the biggest runner of the group?
In Namibia, Ponijao had an amazing energy. All the other babies were having big naps for three to five hours a day. Very quickly Ponijao was not napping at all. So for like 12 hours we were absolutely running everywhere. I was dead exhausted after three weeks of shooting. It was quite warm and you had to follow her where she was running. She was the most alive in that sense.
Were there rules of conduct? In particular in the scene where Bayarjargal from Mongolia is moving in the fields among the cows.
In Mongolia the baby was crawling in a field between cows which for me, being French, was quite stressful. But for the Mongolian parents it was nothing special. And you can see the cows are paying attention. You can see, everything is fine. The baby was safe. But that was a kind of moment where I was thinking, Should I stop filming? I'm happy I didn't stop because I think it's one of the best scenes in the film
You couldn't talk to the babies?
I never speak with any of my characters. I just like observing. And at first I couldn't even speak the languages apart from English.
Did the babies reach for the camera?
They really forgot entirely about us. In fact, very late in the process they started to look straight at the camera. This is when we decided to stop filming. The film happens in between the time they are born and when they realize there's a camera and start looking at it.
There must be a killer blooper reel.
There are definitely many, many things which were really fantastic, but repetitive. Interconnection with animals, we have a lot of that. We had to be quite selective because otherwise it would have been a bit too much. But definitely Bayarjargal was the champion in terms of amazing scenes. He's a crazy and fantastic character. I guess in the DVD there are going to be many more things from Mongolia and Namibia than Japan and America.
What did you learn as a father shooting this film?
Maybe I'm not as concerned about stimulating my kids all the time. Maybe I'm allowing them to spend time doing nothing and still getting some good things out of it. We are too concerned in the West about letting the baby get bored. They need to get bored. They need to have time by themselves. They need to get away from material goods. Maybe get back to simpler stuff. [That] is what I learned as a father by watching this Mongolian and Namibian baby having virtually nothing but flies and cows and grass and wind. Simple things. Just nature to play with. That's quite a lesson for me.
So you'll let your children crawl with cows after all without fear?
[laughing] Not yet. Not to that level. I'm not sure if they'd want to do it.
By Bryan Alexander