French director Thomas Balmès’ Babies forges an unlikely connection between ‘60s cinema vérité and lolcat videos. A documentary that follows four babies in their first year of life, shot in San Francisco, Tokyo, Namibia and rural Mongolia, it’s an unabashed wallow in cuteness, yet it also has a great deal to say about cultural differences between the West and Third World.
The film doesn’t use voice-over narration or interviews with the babies’ parents, and it doesn’t even subtitle the few bits of speech from adults. Instead, the director throws a lot of material at viewers and expects them to draw their own conclusions. Balmès spoke to the Scene recently about shooting and shaping his film, and how a child who grows up without toys is hardly deprived.
Scene: How hard was it to decide exactly where you should begin and end Babies?
Thomas Balmès: We worked a very long time on the editing, but the first shot has been in place since the beginning. Since I filmed it, I knew it would be the first one. I really wanted to do a flashback, to be able to see at least one baby growing up before going back to the birth.
Did the editing take as long as the shoot, which lasted 400 days?
Balmès: Exactly as long. We didn’t work on the editing full-time, but it was a long process because we had a hard time finding the right musician for the score. We were lucky to work with Bruno Coulais, who composed Coraline, Winged Migration and amazing music scores for other documentaries. We needed to find a kind of music which wouldn’t take up much space but would be unobtrusive.
In terms of structure, the editing was very delicate. With such a simple story, there were millions of films possible. We had to do something which could fit different expectations, knowing that it would be released internationally. I’m happy, which is not always the case, to have only one version of the film. For instance, March of the Penguins had a French version, an American version and an international version. The editing and music in Babies are the same everywhere.
There are certain motifs in the film, especially the babies’ interaction with animals. Did those occur to you as you were filming or did they emerge in the editing?
Balmès: In all my previous documentaries, I’ve been fascinated by how animals can become characters. I knew that the interaction between the babies and animals would be key. The scene where the goat drinks the baby’s bathwater shows what’s specific to documentary filmmaking. You can’t script it. That’s why I love to make documentaries. In most of the cases, you can’t beat reality. If you take the time and have a lot of freedom in the way you tell a story, reality can be as good as any fictional film.
There’s a misunderstanding in many viewers that documentaries should be merely informative, like Michael Moore’s films or even many wildlife films. They’re more about observing reality than pushing a point of view. To me, this is the most basic documentary you can do. Nothing was set up. Everything’s happening in front of you. Even the editing is not manipulative. Telling the story, we tried to have every shot speaking for itself.
Was there anything particularly remarkable that you couldn’t fit in the film?
Balmès: Not really. We could have a second film on the Mongolian child. We had to be quite selective with what we used. Hopefully, some of it will be on the DVD.
Were there any surprises in your interactions with such different cultures?
Balmès: Well, I think the big surprise is how we in the West and I as a parent myself are relying on toys and objects to fill up every moment of our kids’ lives. I’ve been amazed by how the Mongolian and African baby could develop a relationship to a fly, the wind or a piece of grass. This is a lesson to any Western parent. Those kids can grow up well with nothing. They’re not poor; it’s just a different type of wealth. For instance, the Himba tribe in Namibia measures wealth by cattle. The same thing with the Mongolian family. They have a different relationship with goods than we have in the West. That's the main thing I learned.
What other documentaries — or even fiction films — do you admire?
Balmès: A lot of American documentary filmmakers, like the Maysles brothers and Frederick Wiseman. Even if my style is different from Wiseman’s, I think the American school of direct cinema is one of the most important ones. I’m also a huge film of Woody Allen films. I’ve always been concerned about having a sense of humor to my documentaries, but also maintaining a political edge. I think you can be both entertaining and political without taking the viewer by the hand and pushing him towards a specific message. I try to make very open films, which give the viewer a lot of freedom. I don’t want to be too manipulative. I really like Michael Moore’s work as a viewer, but I don’t want to make that kind of documentary myself.