In the opening sequence of the new documentary “Babies,” two young tots wearing loincloths and jewelry hit rocks together in the middle of brush. When one of them is disrupted by her male companion, the two start crying, biting and slapping each other before calmly returning to the task at hand — playing in the dirt.
Such mundane activities aren’t usually the focus of big summer blockbusters, but “Babies” director Thomas Balmès is hoping he can prove otherwise with his film, which hits theaters Friday. “‘Babies’ is the opposite of everything you see in ‘Avatar’ 3-D or ‘Iron Man 2,’” he says. “It captures the simplest things you can imagine. It is very unusual that reality is speaking for itself.”
The movie, which has become an Internet hit thanks to its aww-inducing trailer, simultaneously follows four infants — Ponijao in Opuwo, Namibia; Bayar in Bayanchandmani, Mongolia; Mari in Tokyo, and Hattie in San Francisco — from birth to their first birthdays. All the universal stages of development are included, such as talking, walking and eating, but the flick is also peppered with more surprising moments, such as when Bayar’s bath is interrupted by an undomesticated goat. “I was so impressed with how these kids could be creative with whatever games or toys they were finding,” says Balmès, who is based in Paris and has three young children of his own. “It could be watching a fly or playing with a toilet paper roll, but they were never bored.”
This is particularly true of the two children in Namibia and Mongolia. Ponijao and Bayar routinely are left to their own devices while their parents work in the village, which leads to encounters with stray animals and spontaneous moments of play with discarded objects such as a tin cup in the wilderness. “They have an ability to discover the world on their own,” Balmès says.
But the director isn’t trying to make a statement about cultural and social norms. “It’s not a National Geographic film,” he says. “The differences between these babies are very small. All four have parents that give them attention and care. This film is simply about what it means to grow up.”
Balmès and his crew spent more than 400 hours filming the kids (80 percent of which Balmès did on his own), traveling between countries about every two weeks. Inevitably, there were several bouts of boredom “especially at the beginning, when the kids were not that active and sleeping a lot,” but, like the babies, Balmès found interest in the simplicities of life. “I had to enjoy it and be just like they were.”
The experience even changed Balmès’ own approach to parenting. “I put down my phone now and stop e-mailing and try to find windows where I can be with each of [my kids] individually,” he says. “We overstimulate their brains with dance lessons, piano lessons, tennis lessons, and don’t leave them with a minute of space to think and be by themselves. All children need is love and they’ll do fine.”