While Grandma was visiting, Sam and I went on a date (squeal!). A real, live date, to a movie theater. With greasy popcorn, and hand holding.
On that date, we saw Iron Man 2. (Good popcorn movie, no?)
But a few days later, while Mikko was in school, we went all-out extravagant and saw a second movie in a theater: Babies. We got popcorn again (hey, movies are a rare treat since a certain little event almost three years ago called Giving Birth to a Squaller) with Kernel Season's white cheddar topping (not joking about the name, and which I highly recommend — yum! — and need to get hold of pronto). There was not as much hand-holding, primarily because Sam's mom accompanied us. But, hey, it's all good! We got to see Babies.
I had been looking forward to this movie since first hearing teasers about it on various crunchy blogs. We put the release date on the calendar so we wouldn't forget to catch it when it came out. And then I waited, and waited.
Ah, but it was worth it!
It was like my old friend the book Our Babies, Ourselves: How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent, by anthropologist Meredith Small, but in movie form! Small in Our Babies, Ourselves goes through four different cultures that parent in distinct ways. Babies does just the same.
The filmmaker, Thomas Balmès, follows a baby each from Mongolia, the United States, Japan, and Namibia. Here's the trailer so you get the idea:
I purposely have avoided reading any interviews or other film reviews before getting my thoughts down. If necessary, I'll come back to do a follow-up later, but for now, these are my reactions.
I thought the film was beautiful and reflective. It's not a very long movie, and there aren't any subtitles to get in the way of just observing. You feel like something of an anthropologist as you watch the lives unfolding on the screen and compare what's happening to the other scenarios and to your own experiences and culture.
Ponijao, Namibia:I really liked seeing how closely knit the Namibian community was. The baby there lived in the desert within some sort of tribe of herders, and they sat around most of the day, breastfeeding, doing each other's hair (loved! their! hair!), making jewelry, and talking. In some ways, it seemed boring; in others, idyllic. It certainly was a lot less frenetic than the Tokyo and San Francisco scenes!
There were a ton of flies, and this setting and the Mongolian one made Sam's mom remark later, "Well, that proves dirt doesn't kill babies." The flies notwithstanding, I was really taken with how much of their lives the Namibian babies (because there was always more than one around, even though Ponijao was the "star") spent outdoors and interacting with nature. They played with stones and sticks and running water, because — that's all there was! It was both refreshing and, you know, not something I'd choose for myself.
I loved seeing real-world elimination communication in action, even though the theater's response to the baby pooping on her mother's leg was a collective "ew." The babies wore no diapers, and the mother purposely wiped the baby's bum on her leg, then whisked her leg clean(ish) with a sort of stick brush. No BBLPs for this crowd!
I also lurved the breastfeeding depictions, which included scenes of tandem feeding. The women were topless (one reason for the PG rating), so the breastfeeding was matter of fact and frequent. I loved watching the mother trying to latch the newborn on while simultaneously getting her toddler's attention to keep suckling, all the while trying to shake her luxurious locks back out of their way. I also liked the scene where she was feeding her daughter and another baby toddled up, presumably to jockey for some nummies, too, and the mother sort of gently told the other baby off. There were no subtitles, but I like to think she was pointing the other one in the direction of the baby's own mother for a snack.
We didn't see much of the fathers, but I did enjoy seeing some of the older kids, boys and girls, who were entirely comfortable around the babies and the mothers. I love to think Mikko will one day be as easygoing and nurturing around babies as some of the adolescent Namibian boys. I think this is one of the ideals espoused in The Continuum Concept, that if we afford babies their rightful place within a society (giving them the attention, breastfeeding, cosleeping, babywearing, etc., they need), the other tiers of the society also find their rightful place. Jean Liedloff's contention was that a lot of the strain between different ages is a resentment over how we were (mal)treated as infants and a constant seeking to reestablish what we missed out on. Not to defend the psychology of that, but I did love seeing this loving tribal atmosphere in action, where all the members seemed content (at least from the outside) in their particular life stage, rather than jockeying to be treated as younger or older, and therefore seeing those older or younger as a threat, as seems to happen a lot in our society.
Away from philosophy again, I also loved witnessing the heavy-duty babywearing. Ponijao's mother did things with her strapped to her back that I would have considered either too strenuous on me or too jolting for the baby — but she fell right asleep! Loved that.
Mari, Japan:I found comparisons between Japanese and U.S. culture one of the most fascinating aspects of Our Babies, Ourselves, and of this film, considering both Japan and the USA are industrial nations, yet Japan's culture is still very Eastern and has distinct differences from U.S. or similar Western/Canadian/European cultures.
One thing that struck me about the Japanese experience was the peacefulness of the birth, not unlike the Namibian birth. Not much detail is shown, but it set the tone for the whole Japanese set of being relatively quiet and serene, even in the bustling metropolis of Tokyo.
Although Mari was the couple's first child, I also noticed that the mother was much less alone than in the U.S. scenes. I know it's easy for mothers in the U.S. to feel isolated, but Mari's mother seemed either to intentionally seek out other mothers and groups to belong to, or it just happened naturally within her culture.
Mari was also breastfed and worn a lot, which was lovely, and she coslept in a great big fluffy bed, belying American fears of combining duvets and infants.
I also loved the touches in the film like the recurring kitty cats interacting with the kids. I couldn't believe the patience of some of the film's animals!
Hattie, USA:It's harder for me to evaluate the U.S. setting objectively. For one thing, I kept comparing myself to Hattie's parents and thinking, Well, I would do that differently; oh, I would do that the same; I think that's relatively crunchy for American culture, but this is San Francisco; oh, it's a shame they felt coerced into that. And so on.
Seeing the filmmaker choose one family and one child to represent the whole USA (and, really, the whole of "Western" culture) made me realize how much weight is put onto that one tiny baby's shoulders. It's easier for me to objectify people from other cultures and assume they faithfully represent their culture as a whole. When you're familiar with (and part of) the culture, you're much more likely to quibble with the person they chose to represent you. (It reminds me of Paul Reiser's standup joke where he imagines the Neanderthals groaning that the archeologists are basing all their perspective on Neanderthals on Howie, the only one of them with the sloping forehead and a unibrow but who was conveniently nearer the surface.)
Another reason it's hard to be objective about the U.S. family is that it's hard in general to summarize your culture when you live within it. So much is taken for granted and goes unnoticed. Just to give an example, when I was choosing pictures to go with this post, I scrolled through pages of film stills and selected my favorites, then realized: I had no pictures of Hattie, the USA child. Had their been no options with her? I scrolled back through the stills. No, there she was, in several. They were just so boring to me that I'd passed them by. Yeah, yeah, a white baby in Western clothes holding a cell phone or taking a shower with indoor plumbing — big deal.
That said, there were some things I did notice, considering my parenting bent. First of all, the birth was medicalized. Of course. There was some breastfeeding and cosleeping and babywearing, though, which was cool.
But what struck me most of all, by comparison with the other families, and what rings true to me as an American mother, was the loneliness. You barely ever saw Hattie with anyone but her parents, and you rarely saw the parents with anyone else. Sometimes, yes, but not often.
I also noted that the U.S. family seemed to have the most shots with the father, which in retrospect I think is interesting. I could definitely see that there's been a Western trend toward fathers being more involved with their kids. Again, this is not something that stood out to me as I watched, because my own experience reflects the reality that the father (in my case, Sam) is deeply involved as a parent. But, looking back over the other scenarios, I realize that's a little unusual, and from where I'm standing, a bonus point for the good ol' U.S. of A. Since I like to blast us for pretty much everything else mainstream we do.
In contrast, for instance, there were certainly cringe-worthy moments when I imagined the Namibian and Mongolian families standing over my shoulder (this is just fantasy, mind you) and gawking at our insistence on bringing our babies to special music classes where we sing sappy songs from someone else's culture (American Indian, in Hattie's case), or the fact that we can afford our own private hot tubs, not to mention the clean water going into them and the electricity powering them and the repercussions all that has on the environment of the rest of the world. But, you know, American culture is what it is. I thought Hattie's family was a pretty good representation of some of the highs and the lows that encompass parenting in the USA.
The Mongolian family was the saddest to me. I don't know if they consider themselves sad, but Bayar just seemed so isolated, not just from other families (they were also some sort of herders, but apparently as a nuclear family, not as a tribe) but from his own mother. The birth, even more than the American one, was harsh and medicalized, and the baby was immediately swaddled and laid apart from his mother. It was actually quite a tear-jerking scene for me as the camera filmed the baby in his clear bassinet with the mother staring at him blankly and exhaustedly from her hospital bed.
Bayar stayed swaddled until he could crawl, which I don't have a problem with in theory. But they would then just leave him lying around, rather than carry him with them. Once he was mobile, they tied him to a table leg to keep him from wandering far. It was just kind of … sad.
Bayar's older brother, maybe two years old or so, was clearly incensed at his displacement, and he took his anger out on Bayar, with pretty much no intervention from any adults (including whoever was filming).
When you did see Bayar with his mother, it was often a tense scene: washing his face with breastmilk while he screamed, being spanked repeatedly for tipping over a bucket of dirty water that he and his brother were playing with when he was all of around 8 months old (I'm guessing).
I couldn't help thinking: This is the culture that bred Genghis Khan.
Which I know is absurd. Americans are notoriously bellicose, as are Westerners in general, as are (or have been) the Japanese. I don't know much about Namibia (sorry! — OK, here's a start), but Africa overall is not a model for peace. So, I don't know — is our culture changing for the better as we become more interactive and less hostile toward our children? Or does it not matter, as with places in Africa that still ascribe to tribal ideals but have heavy conflict? (But there are a whole host of factors there that have nothing to do with child-raising techniques, like colonialism and poverty and on and on, so maybe it's too complex to make a comparison.) I'd like to believe treating our youngest and most vulnerable with respect and reverence results in good things as that generation grows up. I feel kind of pessimistic for Bayar's chances of having a fulfilling relationship with his future children, or even a secure attachment to his own family.
I don't know! Anyway, what I liked about the Mongolian family was, once again, seeing elimination communication as it's practiced traditionally. When he was very young, they placed a puddle pad under him and let him pee on it as he needed to. As he got older, he just pretty much never wore pants, and he wandered around the yard at will, playing with (i.e., manhandling) the goats and exploring on his own. It looked a little lonely, a whole lot free, sometimes scary, and kind of fun.
ConclusionsI wasn't sure if Thomas Balmès had a specific agenda when filming the movie and was trying to craft a message, or if he really just wanted to present some observations. I know you can't create art in a vacuum, and all documentaries are influenced by the documentarian. Specifically with Babies, I wondered how much of the silence and the non-intervention by adults was requested or demanded, and how much was instinctual or culturally based.
As I said, there were no subtitles, but there wasn't any need for them because there was overall very little talking at all. In fact, there were many, many scenes with no adults present on-screen.
As I mentioned, the Mongolian baby kept being mauled by his toddler brother without any adult stepping in to stop the abuse, and later that same baby aggravated a playmate with no one intervening. In the U.S. family, the baby was eating a banana in one scene that had a hard piece that she popped in her mouth but then had trouble chewing and spit back out. The father was sitting at the table with her, because he handed her the banana and received the spitted-out piece from her in his palm, but he didn't reach out in the first place to take away the hard piece before she could put it in her mouth. I don't know about Mongolian culture (though clearly I've drawn conclusions), but in U.S. culture, I think most parents would have intervened before she put the clearly dangerous and inedible portion in her mouth.
I thought the same as I saw the babies take their first wobbling steps and wondered at how hands-off all the parents were about it. Again, I would expect more helping behavior from the U.S. parents, which makes me wonder if all the adults were coached to stay out of the babies' way.
In the end, I thought Babies was a fun film treat, an observational look into four different cultures. It didn't seem to draw any conclusions for me, but it gave me plenty to think about. It's the kind of movie that would make a good springboard to studying more about the cultures seen, or any of the behaviors that seemed odd.
And, most telling, there was a little girl in the theater with us who was maybe 5 years old. She sat through the whole film with only a few politely voiced questions to her mother. I thought that was pretty impressive — both for the girl, and for the power of the movie to draw you into four babies' lives.
If you can find a convenient babysitter for your own hot date night (to see a documentary! on babies!), you might also be able to score free tickets, fyi. I've seen several giveaways of movie cash for Babies posted on various giveaway blogs, so run a search to find some if you're poor but still want to attend! Here are a few to get you started:
(P.S. I'm not in any way being compensated [or solicited] for promoting these giveaways, and I paid for my own tickets [and my mother-in-law's!] fair and square. This is out of the goodness of my kind little heart to get you into a movie for free without resorting to sneaking past the ticket booth. But if all else fails and you need me to create a distraction for you, call me up. Enjoy!)
Did you see Babies the movie? Whaddja think?