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Thursday, 06 May 2010 17:00
Local opening date: May 7, 2010
Reviewed by Diane Carson
In Babies, with a nonjudgmental, anthropological approach, French documentarist Thomas Balmes chronicles the first year of life of four babies from different countries. The four babies are: Ponijao in Namibia, Mari in Tokyo, Bayar in Mongolia, and Hattie in San Francisco. No narrator provides any context for the families or for their places within their respective societies. And seldom do events place them in larger groups. Nevertheless, perhaps even because of this focus on the babies' world, comparisons and contrasts come across clearly even when nuances may be missed.
Thanks to illuminating crosscutting, Balmes highlights the developmental similarities that unite the four babies. These physical elements include eyes beginning to focus, learning to crawl and stand, crying for attention, sleeping, smiling, playing and responding to the immediate environment. But more fascinating than the shared natural features are the strikingly different nurturing practices, even to something as elementary as breast versus bottle-feeding. 

Parents' hands-on or hands-off socializing is informatively illustrated, and it speaks volumes. Mongolian Bayar crawls over and pulls on the goats' hair and the cat's fur, through cattle hooves, and inside and outside the yurt. Namibian Ponijao picks up a bone and chews on it, plays in a shallow stream, and crawls through the very red dirt. By contrast, San Franciscan Hattie has parents who clean her clothes with a lint brush and Mari's Japanese parents bathe her so carefully, though they seem nowhere around as she plays and throws a minor fit. Moments with the babies reveal each culture's values and attitudes in fascinating detail.

Unfortunately, Balmes appends cutesy, intrusive music to a few scenes. Much better editorial additions would have been explanations about the diverse cultural practices, though the visual choices certainly don't require analysis. Without question, Ponijao, Mari, Bayar and Hattie live on the same planet but they certainly inhabit very different worlds. As a bonus, director Balmes' careful observation invites all of us adults to pay more attention to what we've come to take for granted, nature or nurture. At Landmark's Plaza Frontenac and Tivoli Cinemas. 

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