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It’s a Small World

With "Babies," filmmaker Thomas Balmes lets audiences see the world through fresh eyes

Author Adam K. Raymond

PONIJAO, A JOYFULLY mischievous Namibian infant, sits in the dirt with her older brother, playing with rocks. She reaches for a bottle; her sibling snatches it from her. She bites him. He slaps her. She cries. He turns back to the rocks indifferently.

It’s the kind of adorable moment that might rack up millions of views on YouTube. But this isn’t a Handycam clip, it’s the opening scene of Babies, a documentary full of crawling, cooing and, yes, even some crying. “I hope it inspires viewers to learn about different cultures,” says the film’s director, Thomas Balmes.

Out this month from Focus Features, Babies documents a year in the life of four infants—one each in Namibia, Mongolia, Tokyo and San Francisco—from birth through the torments of teething to their first unsteady steps. Nearly 80 minutes long and virtually dialogue-free, Babies is one of Balmes’ stark observational documentaries, which also include examinations of mad cow disease and tribes in Papua New Guinea. Embedded with his subjects, whom he cast while they were still in the womb, Balmes blends into the background and keeps his camera rolling as “reality offers these amazing moments.”

In Babies those moments are plentiful—from the sight of Mongolian tot Bayar sitting in a tub of water as a goat saunters up for a drink, to American baby Hattie discovering the edible part of a banana. Such scenes are presented without narration, which is one of the film’s great strengths. “I don’t like to take the viewer by the hand,” says Balmes. But there’s no guidance needed to get the message of Babies, which demonstrates that despite how little these far-flung families seem to have in common, when it comes to our earliest experiences, humans around the world aren’t so different after all.

Imparting such lessons is the overarching goal of Babies, which Balmes insists is about more than adorable cheeks and chubby toes. He hopes the film inspires viewers to see the world anew. “Hopefully it will make some of them want to have kids, too,” he says. “It’s one of the most beautiful things in the world.”

Senior editor ADAM K. RAYMOND still prefers his peas mashed.

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