Perhaps you’ve seen it. Perhaps you’ve found yourself in a darkened theater, exhausted by loud, fast-cutting trailers of exploding shrapnel. Suddenly two babies appear on the screen. The shot is insanely long by Hollywood-trailer standards — 39 full seconds of two Namibian children sitting around squabbling while they pound some rocks. No narration. No special effects. No music. Just…babies.
For his new documentary, out May 7, French filmmaker Thomas Balmés spent close to two years tracking the everyday triumphs and discoveries of four babies, hailing from the far reaches of Namibia, Mongolia, Japan, and America. The story, told without a single word of narration (or much dialogue beyond giggles, cries, and coos), slides from child to child, chronicling not only their journeys from birth to walking age, but also the unique culture of parenting and community that surrounds them.
The concept for Babies came courtesy of French megastar Alain Chabat, who teamed up with Balmès, a director of well-regarded anthropological documentaries. (Chabat remains a producer on the film.) Balmés’ first task was choosing locations. He was familiar with Mongolia and parts of Africa from previous work, and thought San Francisco and Tokyo would offer an intriguing counterbalance in terms of development and modernity. Next, Balmés assembled local casting crews to find willing pregnant women who would be delivering in the spring of 2006. During preproduction, Balmés’ wife was expecting their third child. ”I mentioned that it could have been interesting to have my own child in the film,” he laughs, ”but she said no way!”
Balmés spent roughly 100 days following each baby. At the dawn of his subjects’ growing self-consciousness, around the age of 15 months for each child, he realized he’d found the natural end of his movie. After yeoman efforts to cut down a wealth of footage to an 80-minute film, the focus shifted to marketing. ”The problem, and it really is a problem, is that babies are ridiculously fun and adorable,” says Focus Features CEO James Schamus, who is a friend of Chabat’s. ”It would have been so easy to cut together clips of the movie that could make it look like the world’s greatest America’s Funniest Home Videos. But this is a real cinematic experience of taking yourself back to the world as it seemed when you were a baby.”
Focus first released the trailer in theaters last October, but resisted posting it online for a month. ”I wanted people to hear about this as a movie, and I didn’t want it going viral,” Schamus says. The trailer hooked its target audience. Focus reached out and partnered with more than 1,750 mommy-centric bloggers to spread the word. The Babies Facebook page has over 21,000 fans. Even Jimmy Kimmel spoofed the film, substituting a shot of baby-size sidekick Guillermo for the Mongolian boy in a washbasin. (”This type of thing would not happen in France,” says a mystified Balmés.) Focus plans to open the film in approximately 500 theaters in the U.S. — a rather wide initial release by documentary standards. By comparison, the 2005 sensation March of the Penguins, which went on to earn $77 million, opened in just four theaters. ”We’re going to be all over the country from the get-go,” says Schamus. ”If you want to take Mom to this movie on Mother’s Day, you will find a way.”
Balmés has screened Babies for each of the four families he chronicled. He worried that the American parents might feel teased for their very Western style of child rearing, though he is quick to add that he identified with their methods: ”I’ve been overstimulating my kids since they were born.” Susie Wise, the 41-year-old San Francisco mother of the American baby, says she was anxious going into the screening. ”Would we be the ugly Americans?” she wondered. ”Would we seem materialistic?” But, save for a few cringe-worthy scenes where Wise now admits to acting like ”a bit of a geek,” she loved it. ”To have a connection in this bizarre way to children around the world seems to me a very profound gift to my daughter,” says Wise. ”Maybe we’ll do some coming-of-age ritual when she’s 12 or 13 and we’ll go to these other countries and meet those children.”
But Balmés’ favorite response came from Mongolia. After watching the film on Balmés’ computer, the little boy, now almost 4 years old, gave his take: ”This is a film about me, the sky, and how my big brother has been beating me up!”