In the new film Babies, which is in theaters now, French Documentary filmmaker Thomas Balmes takes a fascinating and unprecedented look at parenthood and how different cultures raise their young. The movie depicts the first year of life for four different infants from four different parts of the world including Mongolia, Namibia, San Francisco and Tokyo. We recently had a chance to talk with Thomas Balmes about his new film, the process of making it, how different cultures raise their children and why his wife did not want their baby to be one of his subjects. Here is what he had to say:
To begin with, Can you talk about the genesis of the project and how you got the idea to make the film?
Thomas Balmes:Well I was approached in 2005, already like five years now by a French producer who gave me a call telling me that he wanted to meet me to talk to me about a project that he had and his whole idea was to do something about babies. Originally it was from one to three and the original title was One to Three and then I felt like there could be something interesting to do about babies. Then after a long time we decided to do this from zero to one instead of one to three and to just do it in the most simple way. I would say that this is the simplest documentary ever done on what it means for four human beings to arrive on Earth in four parts of the world.
The more I worked and why I was fascinated by this project, is that the more I do films I feel that the form in which I use and the issues that you tell in the story can be more interesting than the subject its self. So I wasn't just interested in the baby subject but more in the possibility to do a kind of unusual film in this form. Especially for theatrical big films that people are used to watching, which most of the time are scripted and have a very scripted scenario. Where here we could really do Direct Cinema, which I think is too unusually used in feature documentaries to tell the simplest story ever.
Could you explain the term you just used, "Direct Cinema" and what you mean by that?
Thomas Balmes: It's something where you just observe reality and let it speak for itself. Of course you have a point of view and you are deciding what to shoot and what to put in your frame but then inside of that you are not setting up anything. You're not adding your own voiceover to tell the viewer what he or she should think that you've done. There is no possibility for anything to be objective so it's really a subjective film but there is much more space given to the viewer to make his own conclusion of what they should think they are watching. Usually in most of the documentary films that you are watching that are theatrically released I feel that it limits you in many places. In those film's there is no way to break from where they are trying to take you, the whole film is a demonstration of what they want to give.
In my way of filmmaking, not only with this project but also in other films that I've done, I'm really trying to do documentaries where the viewer is observing an idea that he had himself and to understand something out of that. It is a different way of working and very unusually are documentaries being made like that. It makes it fascinating when a movie like this is being released all around the world. The feedback that I'm getting already from people in Japan, people in Europe and in America is great and the difference comes from having such diversity in the film. It's a very exciting experience as a filmmaker to see how people are watching the film in so many different ways depending where they are from.
Can you talk about the different regions of the world in which you shot the film and how you came to choose those locations?
Thomas Balmes: In fact, you know I'm French, I've been doing documentaries for twenty years and I've never done any documentaries in France. I've never done a single picture in France. I've always thought that to have some distance from the subject and the culture that you are choosing allows you to look at it differently. Other than that, what I'm trying to do is change the perspective from my point of view of them to almost allow them to be their own actor as far as the expression of who they are and how they speak.
So this format we worked in, first of all we chose different countries that I had been shooting in previously. Namibia I knew but I had not been shooting there so I always knew that I wanted to come back and shoot in different places but they are not representative of me trying to cover the whole planet. The whole idea was to have four levels of relationship to maternity. From Namibia where there is almost not a single materialistic thing there, they don't even have plastic, to Japan, which is the most science fiction atmosphere in the world. Tokyo especially always reminds me of Blade Runner, or some science fiction films, but the whole idea was to have four levels of maternity and four levels of society for these children to grow up. So they are not representative of the country itself but much more representative of the maternity itself. Then inside of that we tried to find families, which also could become universal and not too stereotypical.
Was it a conscious choice to choose two metropolitan areas and two rural areas of the world to shoot your film?
Thomas Balmes: I guess that is part of the reality of the kind of situation that you can have in this part of the world. In western countries it is definitely moving to a more kind of urban living, you know? So the idea was to have four kinds of living and have something representative of what it's meant for most of the Western kids and what its meant for kids from the other counties to live. Even in Africa people are getting more and more urbanized but what I found in Africa you cannot find anywhere. This tribe is definitely one of the last, you have very few places in the world where you can find a whole society that is totally disconnected from anything modern.
Can you talk about the differences between the cultures you studied and how they raise their babies?
Thomas Balmes: Well I guess the big thing is, the four of them are doing something internal, which is trying to do their best and they are achieving it even if it is different in the education that they are giving the kids. But the fact that all of them are giving as much love as they can allows these babies to grow up well. Then of course there is a huge diversity between what these kids are living on a daily basis, you know? Where the kids in Japan and America, like my own kids in fact, spend most of the time in activity and have very little time to get bored.
I myself, when my first child was born remember waking up every morning and starting to read her books just a few minutes after she would wake up and then take her to a class. Exactly what you see happens in this film, I feel very close to that kind of an education. Maybe after you make the film and spend all that time traveling the world that you realize that it is so important for kids to get bored and have time by themselves. Like having flies in their face, watching the weeds tumble by and just the most basic stuff on Earth. That unfortunately, we don't do that you know? So the film doesn't teach you but I did want to demonstrate trying to challenge a few ideas about what we should do and not do even if there is no lesson I want to give to the viewer.
Now could you talk about some of the similarities that you found between how the different cultures raise their infants and what really surprised you?
Thomas Balmes: I guess there are definitely more similarities that differences between the four kids and the relationships with their siblings. I could definitely recognize my kids and myself in the relationships that they have, especially the Mongolian baby with the older brother. I have three kids and I can tell you that the tension and violence between them is very close to what you saw in the film with the Mongolian family. The relationship with the animals may be a bit different. I guess the main point of the film, more than bringing up the differences, is basically that the core of all of them growing up is universal and that it doesn't matter where you grow up is maybe the message of the film.
Can you talk about studying your subjects and how you were able to stay invisible to them and not become invasive in their lives?
Thomas Balmes: When you are doing observation on Direct Cinema, which is what I've been doing for a long time you are getting used to that and you know that after a while people will forget about you. Either babies or grown-ups, they are going to forget about you. You have to understand that these babies were born with virtually cameras observing them since the first minute they were on Earth. When I wasn't there shooting myself because I was traveling all around the world shooting, I had local crews helping me to keep the babies getting used to having a camera by there side. So virtually the babies were totally used to having someone there. We almost never had any eye contact with the lens until very late in the process. I had the film stop when I really felt that we were not invisible anymore but really just observing and that became more disturbing for the babies, which is something that started to happen when they were around 18 months everywhere.
But virtually we were there and it was much more difficult but not because of the babies but because of the parents. In fact it is difficult to be forgotten when you are working in a twenty square meter apartment in Tokyo. It was this circumstance that was complicated as apposed to being in step in Mongolia or in the dirt of Namibia. So shooting in San Francisco and Tokyo was difficult because of the parents not because of the babies and so I say that that was always the most difficult part of making this film. You know I always say that I got myself a baby through that process. My last child is three years old and would have been perfect to be one of the four babies. But we spoke a little bit with my wife and there was absolutely no way, even as her husband, that she would allow that so I was really thankful to the families to have allowed me to be in they're lives for such a long time.
Finally, can you talk about some of the lessons that you learned from making this movie about being a parent that you now apply to your own life and what you hope audiences take away from the film?
Thomas Balmes: Well I guess, as I was explaining earlier I'm trying to not be as worried as I used to be and that is also something that comes natural after the second or third kid. The two first-born children, which are in Japan and America in this film, are a concern not just because they are Westerners but also because they are the first kids. This disappears after the second one and the third one. Me, having three kids now, I'm really giving them much more space now to be by themselves and not be so concerned with filling up every minute with some kind of book, music lesson or activity.
So this supported me in the idea that space and getting bored is important and babies need that as much as they also need your love but not to get filled up with TV or whatever. The American family is not filing up the babies time with stupid things, she is doing yoga and different things but whatever it is the worst I think is TV and all this new media that kids are exposed to now at a very early age. I think we should try to advert that as much as we can and let some time and space for the kids to be by them selves and discover the birds, the grass, the trees and some things that are surrounding us that we have a tendency to forget.