I must be the last birthy person on earth to watch the movie “Babies,” but I finally did; what took me so long!? What an adorable movie. With the rare intelligible spoken word and even less music, it might not be the biggest hit with the zippy-paced, second-long attention span’d folks, but I bet it’ll grab even the least likely person in your family. I mean, c’mon… babies? Who couldn’t love them?
Cast of Characters – and I do mean characters!- the babies, Ponijao from Namibia, Africa; Hattie from San Francisco, North America; Bayar in Mongolia, Asia and Mari in Tokyo, also in Asia are shown from birth to one year of age. We’re able to see the range of activities babies universally demonstrate; everything from sleeping and pooping to temper tantrums and learning to walk. I laughed as Bayar sat unrolling the toilet paper… how many times that happened in my own household! And it must certainly comfort many a mama to know it isn’t just their baby that hollers all night long.
I loved seeing breastfeeding as such a natural experience, the women in Namibia seeming to nurse the longest, although I suspect Bayar also nursed longer than many (most?) American babies. I mean, where would his mom store formula in a yurt? Because there wasn’t dialogue, we were left to wonder if the one African mom had twins or was nursing another woman’s baby. I’m willing to bet there was at least some baby-sharing going on. If for no other reason, I’d love new moms to watch the movie to see the lack of clock watching by the mothers not in industrialized cultures. Wearing the babies was normal, as was an almost continuous offering of the breast. We can learn a lot from that easy-going attitude, yes? It was great seeing one of the moms squirting breast milk all over her baby’s face, wiping the dirt (and germs!) away with a cloth. It can take a lot of convincing to get an American mom to squirt milk into her child’s goopy eyes… and look! we aren’t alone in this easy and free method of clearing up infections. I’d love to know if breast milk was put on cuts and scrapes of other family members, too.
Hollywood is known for loathing scenes with babies and animals, but “Babies” delights in watching both interact. The babies poke, pull and try to ride cats and dogs. Oh, how tolerant our pets are! I laughed knowingly. However, I did cringe when one of the moms sat skinning the family cat, most assuredly for food. Her baby wasn’t the least bit perturbed, yet I wondered if an older child might have had more of a reaction.
Alternately, I laughed when the baby sat in his stroller surrounded by cattle. He didn’t even bat an eye!
When it came to cleanliness, I surprised myself at my squirminess when the African babies lived on the dirt (when they weren’t in arms). I’ve been one of those moms that didn’t wig out about the kids being dirty –immunizations!- I’d proclaim. But to think of the babies crawling around on the dirt that animals (and humans?) peed and pooped on… bled on… it was just gross to me. Seeing a baby pick up a random bone and gnaw on it flared a wonder: Might the infant and child mortality rate be so high partly because of this regular part of (non-industrialized) African life? I have no idea if that is an absurd thought or not and am sure those that work closely with different areas take that into consideration, but it struck me several times while watching the movie. At the least, I was confronted with my own ethnocentrism; I paid attention. A couple of hours after the movie, I had the thought that we all came from this background; somewhere in our ancestry, we all lived on the ground… and made it just fine.
The juxtaposition of the dirt-crawling babies with the almost overly-clean American and Japanese kids was striking. Strollers kept the babes far from the “dirty” earth and daily baths as well as washing machines gave everyone the well-scrubbed glow so many of us think of as privilege. But, is it always? What did the African mom think of the American baby when she watched the film three years after its making? I would love to sit with her and ask. And the American mom, was she concerned about the babies playing in the water? Was she worried the babies might drown? We’re taught not to leave babies near even a cup of water because they might drown in it, yet some of these babies splashed around unsupervised.
I did love seeing the Mongolian mother bathing her son, sipping water (certainly cold) and then gently spitting it over her baby’s backside. Now, that’s love right there. Amusingly, even though there didn’t seem to be warm water, a satellite dish hovered over the yurt and a stroller made an appearance late in the movie. I can’t imagine how they got there! The mom left the hospital with the new baby on a motorcycle. Was someone hired to carry the dish out to them as well as set them up?
In Japan, I watched as those babies and toddlers received sensory input after learning opportunity, moms and dads equally partaking in stimulating their children. Is this the opposite of unschooling? I’ve wondered what the next generation will bring, what the unschooled children will contribute to our lives and culture. If we put them up against these (possibly over-) stimulated kids, who will be more productive? (And I do not just mean who will make more money.)
Glaring African Differences
So, not wanting to be racist (and please tell me if I am being so), I’ve noticed that African-American (I tend to use the term “Black,” but am unsure if that’s the PC term… I use it because Blacks [in my small world] don’t all endorse the term African-anything) babies walk a lot earlier than Anglo babies. From what I’ve seen, the babies are merely expected to, so do. When I saw the same thing in “Babies,” the African babies… under a year old… being encouraged to walk instead of being picked up, I wondered where the patience came from to not hurry the child along and if that was a long-standing cultural tradition. I’d love to ask a behavioral anthropologist one day.
Panijao is shown learning how to balance a bowl on her head. She’s being shown by mom and then by her brother. I sat with my mouth hanging open at the capabilites of a child I would never have presumed in my own children. What more are all our children able to do but are coddled into avoiding, sometimes their whole lives? M’thinks the movie should be shown in different classes in high school and college… and discussed, pointing out the cultural variations and how we might capitalize on the knowledge of other cultures instead of always assuming they need to capitalize on ours.
How amusing, the satellite dish, an Internet connection, a cell phone –out in Mongolia! There is nowhere safe (so to speak) from technology now. Unless a person consciously removes themselves from society, they are caught up in the Web… literally.
The movie whetted my appetite for information about how the different cultures go through daily life and a hunger for knowledge about various rites of passage. In another life, I would have been an anthropologist.
I do encourage all mamas, dads, parents-to-be to watch “Babies.” It’ll surely make you laugh and nod and you’ll find yourself thinking, “Oh how glad I’m not alone.”
Even when it feels like we are, it’s certainly reassuring to know we are not. I know I feel better anyway.
(Please read the comments; I missed several points that others made, most especially about Bayar in Mongolia remaining nearly immobilized the entire first year. It didn't even dawn on me that he was! I'll have to watch it again. The commenters made great observations.)