Reality Can Speak for Itself
(Canal+, Chez Wam, Studio Canal)
Babies is coming. So teases the trailer for Thomas Balmès’ documentary, promising to show four children from “first breath to first steps.” It’s an irresistible trailer, to be sure, cutting back and forth between these tiny stars, located in San Francisco, Tokyo, Mongolia, and Namibia, while Sufjan Stevens’ song, “The Perpetual Self,” sets a joyful, buoyant tone.
However, Thomas Balmès’ film is different from the trailer. Quiet and thoughtful, it lingers over the babies with all the dedication of a new parent. PopMatters talked with Balmès about his film, nearly 12 years in the making.
I know the lack of narration was part of [producer] Alain Chabat’s original idea for the film: did you ever second-guess that decision?
Did I ever think of adding narration? Absolutely never. I never put any narration either in this film or in any of my previous films. This is the reason why I’m doing documentaries and not fiction films. Reality, if you know how to frame it, can really speak for itself. It’s totally subjective, but I feel my framing something of this reality is enough, as a kind of comment. I think narration would have been disturbing. On so many occasions, [narration] drives the viewer into some intentions which don’t leave him any space to really watch the film.
I found myself making a long list of questions about the different cultures I was seeing, but I was left on my own to investigate those that interested me afterwards.
This is exactly what I think a film should be. I think film should be a sort of starting point for questions, you know? I definitely don’t want the film to be giving any answers. In 90 minutes, you cannot give a clear understanding on almost any subject. If you are doing so, most of the time you’re going be simplifying it. Raising questions, I think, that is a big achievement.
You’ve said you didn’t want to concentrate on the births. Can you explain why?
We had the births, but this was not a big concern. We wanted to have one birth, not four, which is exactly what I wanted for everything. I didn’t want to be repetitively comparing. Most of the film is not necessarily a comparison. We tried to be there when things were different, and not to be ethnographically describing the cultures. It was important to have one birth symbolizing the four.
I read that Chabat said that he wanted a “nature film” about babies.
Yes, a wildlife documentary about babies was the starting point of the whole thing, with, you know, big music, which would have been leading the editing of different babies. I was not too keen on this kind of treatment, in fact. So, we fought a lot and I gave my ideas and, in the end, we ended up doing something which I feel is quite radically different. To me, wildlife documentaries don’t have any point of view. This film is not an ethnographic study of specific cultures. I was looking for universality of what it means for you to be a human being on earth and not to describe specifically the different cultures.
But you don’t go so far as to say the film tries to privilege nature over nurture.
Absolutely not, and definitely not to satisfy nature, either. I think no one could really so, “Okay, well, let’s all move to Africa, this is the best way to live.” The Namibian family is definitely not the typical African family; they are something you can hardly find anywhere else in Africa. There are so few places in the world, maybe a little bit of South America in the forests, where people live disconnected so entirely from anything modern.
The reason I picked these four countries is not so much about geographical coverage of the world, but a [selection of] connections to modernity. So, absolutely no connection in Namibia, to a little bit more connection in Mongolia, and then American, and then last, Japan, which to me is almost like a science fiction atmosphere. Every country is more a kind of metaphor of something else, as opposed to describing the local culture.
I was struck, too, by the varying levels of community represented. Ponijao was always with her very large family [in Namibia], while Bayar and his family [Mongolia] were comparatively isolated. Then you have Hattie [U.S.] and Mari [Japan] and their mothers attending playgroups, which neither baby seemed to enjoy very much. Does the film say anything in these moments about children’s socialization within a more “organic” community versus more contrived social situations?
The film is definitely confronting four different ways of living. But in no way do I want to be judgmental about anything. I recognize myself in almost every single parent on different things. Of course, maybe a bit more with the Japanese and the American family, in the way I keep on bringing my kids from one lesson to another. I recognize myself in the Japanese father, in the way every time he’s playing with his daughter, he’s talking on the phone or doing other things, in other words, very rarely being there entirely. I try to have as much as what is differentiating us, depending on our cultures, to show what is almost universal as far as behavior and relationships… It’s really a big concern to me. I just wanted to show these good and bad aspects of every society.
Did you ever “direct” the parents, even if it was just to encourage them not to intervene in a situation where they might naturally have, to see how it played out?
No, never. But in the same way that I never told them to do this or that, I also told them, “I’m going to the be there, but if you feel there is something you should do, then just do it, because I will not do it. I’m not going to be babysitting your child.” So, for example, in Mongolia, when you see the baby walking in the middle of the cattle, the parents are not that far away, maybe 20 meters. These situations kind of just happened and I was there. If something [dangerous] would have happened, of course, I would have interfered, but basically everything went fine all the time. At the same time, you cannot direct either a baby or the situation. If you do so, this is going to look fake immediately.
There were a lot of scenes though where the parents were only partially visible or not in the scene at all and I felt like this increased my investment in the babies, as if I was watching them or standing in for the parents in those moments.
The thing is, by framing, you have a feeling the baby is alone when the parent might be only two meters away in another room. It’s just a fact of framing and not cutting to a shot that might show the father is maybe in the other room on the computer, so you feel, maybe the baby is by himself, but they were never alone.
Some images are really lovely in how they speak to each other. For example, in one shot, Mari’s mother is writing on her newborn’s feet and later we see Hattie’s feet with pulse-oxymeters and IVs connected. How did you feel such rhyming images reflected the larger project?
Yes! You know, I could spend two to three weeks shooting just waiting for these kinds of moments. The ratio of what I would get in the time of shooting was very low. Coming back from Namibia [once], I knew I had 10 to 20 hours of rushes, but I knew I had one shot in which something that had never happened before and probably would not happen again for a long time, had happened.
This, to me, [defines] documentary filmmaking, reality. This is what you are watching on a big screen, because maybe [this film] is some kind of thing you might have done with a home video, watching your kid and suddenly something happens. This is why I think this film is quite special, because there is a combination of how simple it is, how basic the structure and the subject are, and how unusual and comedic some of the situations are. We are at the basic of what a documentary is, just unmanipulated reality.
The Director and Friend
The film has several long takes, some lasting over three minutes. What you were trying to convey with it?
This is something I’m so happy I could keep and that people are responding so well to, because I think people are not used to that anymore. Culturally, TV and media are using shorter and shorter and shorter cuts—it’s just crazy! What I think is so beautiful about documentaries and what makes them so special is that if you give it the time and you let something happen, like we do in this film, even the simplest thing, such as a baby watching some flies or making some noise, can become fascinating. But you need to give it some time. [Usually shots are] cut after maybe 10 seconds, and this is not only going to be bad, but it’s going to be boring, you know?
There are a lot of comedic and emotional aspects with the length of the shots, so I am really happy to see that this bet paid off. I wanted almost every single shot to be potentially taken out of the film and work by itself. Almost 80 percent of the film is based on these moments. You have a few short edits that are structuring the long shots, but mainly I was really into capturing these moments that are like smaller short films. Hopefully, that’s what people will remember.
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