|Pulpit of Bones: Babies|
|January 20, 2011 Deb Carpenter-Nolting|
“Babies” has been on our list of movies to watch for some time now. It contrasts the lives of four infants from birth to their first steps. The director, Thomas Balmès, went to four very different parts of the earth to film this piece. One of the infants is from Namibia. Another is from Mongolia. The third baby is from Tokyo, and the fourth from California.
The film is not narrated, so most of what can be heard are the sounds that babies make, as well as some interaction with family members. The contrasts are stark and juxtaposed in such a way that no further explanation is necessary. The movie has many subtle messages and made me think about how I raised my babies.
Sibling interaction is the most fascinating aspect of the movie for me. The Namibia girl and the boy from Mongolia both have older siblings, so a good deal of footage is dedicated to these relationships.
The movie opens with the Namibia baby, a few months old, sitting next to her older brother. Both children are sitting in their hut on the ground in front of two rocks. They each have a rock in one hand and they are grinding kernels of corn. The baby reaches for a bottle of water in the dirt near their feet, and her older brother pushes her away. It is obviously his water. Soon there is a scuffle, and the two are hitting each other. Tim and our daughter Jamie and I are amazed that the hands with the rocks are stationary. Neither of the children uses their rocks as weapons. Off camera, we hear the mother’s voice speaking softly and quietly.
The baby, still crying, crawls out of the frame. The boy moves the water bottle closer to him, and then continues grinding one kernel of corn at a time. Later in the movie we watch the same older brother with this little one, and we see that as she gets older, he protects and watches her as closely as he once guarded his water bottle.
The Mongolian family lives in a yurt. This tent-like structure is surrounded by grass and a big blue sky. The family is nomadic and oftentimes the parents have to leave the children unattended. Older brother is very aware of the camera, and much of his behavior is geared towards getting attention.
In one clip, we see the Mongolian baby seated in the middle of the floor of the yurt. The baby is perfectly content, looking around and smiling. Older brother must think this is not very exciting footage, so he enters with a woolen scarf and begins flicking the scarf at the baby. The baby puts up with it for a while, but after getting hit in the face several times, he starts to fuss. Every time baby starts to cry, the older boy stops and looks at the camera.
In yet another clip, the older brother bundles up the baby and straps him carefully in his stroller. He carefully pushes him through the field—and leaves him there! We know, however, that this baby will laugh and be content watching the goats all day.
When I had my girls, I was very fortunate. Jamie was thrilled to have a baby sister and she treated Jessica gently. They never squabbled or hit at each other, but they recently told me that when Jessie was old enough to walk, she followed Jamie around all the time. Jamie liked her privacy, and was disturbed by this constant attention. She wanted to have time to read, without interruption, while she was in their bedroom, so she told her little sister that there were rats under the bed. Jamie persuaded her that the rats would come up at night and chew on her ears if she didn’t hide under the covers. Jessie was afraid to go in the bedroom after that, until she figured out there weren’t really rats in the bedroom or anywhere else, for that matter. Jessie had the last laugh, though, because the story was so convincing that Jamie scared herself and still sleeps with the covers over her ears.
In the movie “Babies,” another big contrast is food. We watch the California baby peel a banana and give each piece of the peel to her dad, who is waiting to take it from her. When it is peeled, she bites off the end of the banana and after chewing a while, spits out the bitter end. The camera then cuts to the family in Namibia, skinning a goat for their meal. Later they sit in front of the communal pot of mush. They dip their hands into the pot and eat methodically and without expression.
In another scene, the Namibia baby crawls in the dirt and finds a bone half-buried. She pulls it out of the dirt and sucks on one end of it. This scene is sharply contrasted to footage of the California baby, where we see her on her tummy on the carpet. The father is vacuuming the carpet all around her, and then he uses a lint roller on her clothes to get up any loose hair or dirt she may have gotten from the carpet.
Pets are predominant in the film, too. The babies from Tokyo and California and Mongolia all have cats and the camera cuts from one baby to the next, where we watch them watching their cats. Then the camera focuses on the baby from Namibia. Her gaze is fastened to the ground in front of her. We wait patiently for a cute kitten to appear in the frame, but realize there is no cat. The baby is intent on watching the many flies that are a constant part of her life.
The movie ends by showing the youngsters standing on their own. While the Tokyo girl hobbles about the city streets and the California girl takes tentative steps from picnic table to kiddie pool, the boy from Mongolia gets to his feet unaided and stands firm, facing the wind. The clear sky is above him, the clean grass below him. The sweet little girl from Namibia is already quite nimble, and her mother gives her a grass bowl and instructs her to put it on her head. She does so, and walks a little ways balancing it there. When it falls, an older sibling is right there to help her put it back on her head. Older brother walks alongside, ready to help again if needed, but she holds her head high and walks proudly into her future.
For hours after the movie has ended, I think about how I raised my babies, and hope I gave them the best of these four cultural views. I hope I showed the patience of the Namibian mother. I hope I provided a good diet to keep them healthy and educational materials to challenge their minds. I hope, too, that I allowed them to stand in tall grass with the wind in their faces and to create their own adventures.
Read more by Deb Carpenter-Nolting