Director Finds Parallels, Differences In 4 'Babies' Iron Man II ran roughshod over the movie box office this weekend, collecting $133 million. But there was an unlikely bunch of Babies crawling into theaters, too. For his new documentary, director Thomas Balmes, spent two years following four adorable tykes from four different parts of the world: Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the U.S. Host Guy Raz speaks with Balmes about the differences -- and the surprising parallels -- he found in this quartet.
NPR logo

Director Finds Parallels, Differences In 4 'Babies'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126653610/126653587" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Director Finds Parallels, Differences In 4 'Babies'

Director Finds Parallels, Differences In 4 'Babies'

Director Finds Parallels, Differences In 4 'Babies'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/126653610/126653587" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Iron Man II ran roughshod over the movie box office this weekend, collecting $133 million. But there was an unlikely bunch of Babies crawling into theaters, too. For his new documentary, director Thomas Balmes, spent two years following four adorable tykes from four different parts of the world: Namibia, Mongolia, Japan and the U.S. Host Guy Raz speaks with Balmes about the differences — and the surprising parallels — he found in this quartet.

GUY RAZ, host:

RAZ: Now, babies may have more powers than we give them credit for, but they're no match for "Iron Man." Two very different films open this weekend, "Iron Man 2," which has already raked in more than $133 million, and a slightly more modest movie. It's a documentary called "Babies."

(Soundbite of movie, "Babies")

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified People: (Singing) Everything is lost.

RAZ: "Babies" is a chronicle of the first year in the life of four children in four different parts of the world: the bush of Namibia, the grasslands in Mongolia, the bustle of Tokyo, and the laid-back vibe of San Francisco. It's a little like watching a nature film about us, humans.

Veteran documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmes shot most of the film over a two-year period.

Mr. THOMAS BALMES (Director, "Babies"): Every time I'm doing a film, I'm just trying to see the world from a different angle. And here, we have like a double shift from adult perspective to baby's perspective, and from a Western way of parenting to different places. It's a sort of film about globalization. It's a film about culture and the way we look at the world and our capacity to be so much self-centered in the West.

RAZ: One of the things that is just so clear right away is the perspective. I mean, the cameras are low.

Mr. BALMES: Yeah.

RAZ: This is done deliberately, I gather.

Mr. BALMES: Yeah. I really wanted to be on the babies' level, almost like never framing the parents. I just wanted to see the world through their eyes. And so you have, like, a few arms, a few legs. Sometimes you could see their face but very unusually. And there are like a few sentences in the whole film, but it's not even subtitled.

RAZ: There is no narration. There's no commentary. There's no dialogue. And there are moments that are universal, the sort of the parts where you hear baby talk.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babies")

(Soundbite of baby talk)

RAZ: And it's the same language in these four completely different countries.

Mr. BALMES: The idea was like, to be there every time these four kids would experience something new: the first time they would touch, feel, eat, and all these kind of small miracles, which sound like tiny for us but huge for them.

RAZ: In the very first scene, we see the Namibian children. There's a toddler and then his baby sister.

Mr. BALMES: Yeah.

RAZ: And they're both sort of grinding stones together, and then at a certain point, the little sister makes a grab for her big brother's bottle, and then this is what happens.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babies")

(Soundbite of baby screaming)

(Soundbite of baby crying)

RAZ: Absolutely...

Mr. BALMES: It's big drama.

RAZ: It is. But it is an absolutely stunningly beautiful shot. It's clear how parents around the world parent in different ways, but also amazing how similar parenting is.

Mr. BALMES: Definitely. This is, like, I think the theme is much more about the similarities than the differences. Basically, all their basic needs, even like if the Namibian baby virtually doesn't have anything of what we consider comfort and like, wealth, they are like very rich according to the local standards, and they are very happy with their life.

You know, when I showed the film very recently in December, it was fascinating to see everybody looking at the film in such a different way. The Namibian mother was telling me, oh, my goodness. I would never live in Tokyo, you know, like in such tiny spaces with these crying babies, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Right. This family that lives in a skyscraper overlooking Tokyo, and the Namibian mother who lives, obviously, very simply.

Mr. BALMES: Yeah. What is wealth? What is comfort? What is what we need? The film is about these kinds of questions. And I myself, I don't have any answers. You know, I'm just like waking up every morning in Paris with my three kids, wondering: Is it the best place to raise three kids? I'm not sure.

RAZ: Thomas Balmes, I want to hear another clip from the film. This is in this scene, we see the Namibian mother, and then we see the Japanese mother, and they're both teaching their children the same thing.

(Soundbite of movie, "Babies")

Unidentified Woman #1: Mama. Mama.

(Soundbite of baby talk)

Unidentified Woman #2: (Speaking foreign language).

(Soundbite of baby talk)

RAZ: So it's two mothers basically teaching their babies how to speak. There is a kind of an intimacy that you capture in this movie, moments where mother and baby are so close and so in love.

Mr. BALMES: Yeah.

RAZ: How are you able to be so close?

Mr. BALMES: Well, this is another thing that comes with filmmaking. First, you need time, and then you need to connect with your characters, and you need to really have a real relationship with them. It's not something that just comes, show up, spend 10 minutes and go away, you know. I have been spending more time with these four kids than with my own babies, for two years.

I just needed time. And it took me two years. I could go somewhere like, two weeks and bring back one shot, but I knew the shot I would bring back would make it in the editing.

The guy who cut the film with me made "Silence of the Lambs," you know? And I love this kind of contradiction to the "Babies" film being cut by the editor of "Silence of the Lambs."

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: "Silence of the Lambs," yeah. We all parents, we all think we know everything there is to know about babies. But I'm wondering if, in your capacity as an observer, did you learn things about babies that you just never knew?

Mr. BALMES: You know, what is for sure is, I discovered I was a bit too worried with my own kids and I was like, not allowing myself to spend enough time with nothing in between us.

I recognize myself all the time in the film, watching this Japanese father surrounded with like, computers and smartphones and just never being able to be really with his child, you know. I'm the same. And in the same way, I'm going to be back next week at the end of this month of promotion in the States with two suitcases full of toys for my kids, and compensating the time I didn't spend with them by materialistic things. And this is a very Western way.

You know, we know it's not that good, but the way we do things might not be the only way.

RAZ: That's Thomas Balmes. He's the director of the new documentary called "Babies." It's in theaters this weekend. Mr. Balmes, thank you so much.

Mr. BALMES: Thanks.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.