Skip to main content

Bayarjargal lives in Mongolia.

If the BBC's Planet Earth series had trained its lens on human young, the result might look a lot like Babies (minus the swelling soundtrack and Sir David Attenborough's puns).

French director Thomas Balmès and his crew shot 400 hours of footage over two years to document the early smiles, frustrations, mischief and first steps of four babies in four disparate nations: Japan, Namibia, Mongolia and America.

It's catnip for the baby crazy, with cross-cultural realities to ground the cuteness.

Babies is due on screen April 29 at Hot Docs in Toronto, and May 7 in theatres. Meanwhile, Mr. Balmès explains why drawing conclusions about parenting from his film would be premature.

Why didn't you use narration to explain things like the Namibian mother smearing red dirt on her baby's head?

I have never used narration in any of my films. And the idea was not to do an anthropological film documenting different ways of living, but to [explore] the theme of "Why are we raising our kids one way and not another way?" It's more of a questioning film than an answering film.

What were the crucial differences you observed in the families?

The kind of overstimulation that you can feel in the [industrialized] countries, both in Japan and in America, is very close to the ways I've been raising my kids - I have three of them - which is not giving our kids one single minute of free brain occupation. We just fill up all the time with dance lessons, piano lessons, tennis lessons - this is what I've been doing [but]maybe I'm doing it a bit less after having made the film. The kids are much more left by themselves both in Mongolia and Namibia, but they don't seem to suffer. And I find it fascinating what they are doing at that time, with that silence. I think it's important to get bored and just watch flies or observe what you are surrounded by.

We see the Mongolian baby alone, surrounded by cattle, and the Namibian baby putting her hand in a dog's mouth. What do these moments tell us?

That there are as many ways of thinking about what is good and dangerous, and not dangerous, as there are cultures and countries. This is what all my films are about - trying to change perspectives to understand that the world is not all the same.

Is safety for babies a relative thing?

I definitely think so. Since these kids have been born in such an environment with parents who are trusting them with this huge respect, compared to what we do, they develop a kind of consciousness. They are walking between cows but nothing is happening to them and the cattle are also paying a lot of attention and just walking around them. So I think the kids are much more aware than we think, when we watch the film, of what they should do and not do. But they have learned it in a different way than Western kids, who are born being told not to do this, not to do that.

The mothers in Mongolia and Namibia often leave the babies to cry and fend for themselves. Are Westerners misguided when they try to mimic tribal life through attachment parenting?

I think there are as many ways of raising your kids among tribes as there are tribes, so I think it's difficult to just speak about the "tribal way." But definitely this [Namibian]tribe and this Mongolian family are more distant from their kids. I think they have a fantastic distance, which is full of love and full of attention, but they leave them huge freedom. People [in the West]form ideas about what is happening in Africa or in different tribes, but I think they're oversimplifying.

Viewers may recoil when they see the Mongolian child tied to a bed post and spanked at less than a year old. Why did you include these clips?

Because this is reality. I felt a lot of love in the way he was spanked. In terms of him being tied to the bed, absolutely every child in Mongolia is tied to the bed because [the parents]don't have any choice. They all live in this kind of tent - a yurt - and there is a very warm heater in the middle of the yurt and if the babies touch it, they are really going to burn themselves. The parents don't have any babysitters and they have to take care of the cattle and they cannot take the baby outside because it's minus 34 degrees, so there is absolutely no other option. And there is no violence and no bad treatment in that.

The subtext seems to be that babies thrive in all kinds of environments. But in Africa a child is more likely to die young.

The Himba tribe [in Africa]are very lucky people who are living in a very healthy environment in a very low-populated country, which is Namibia, so they are only representative of themselves. There shouldn't be any conclusions drawn from what you see.

You reconnected with the children long after filming. Which seemed the healthiest and happiest?

Seriously, the four of them are doing so well. This is again proof that there is not a good way or a bad way to do it.

If you were a baby again, in which of these cultures would you choose to be born?

Mongolia. Because I think there is the best relationship between the environment and the parents and the animals and the life[style] And this is the most beautiful country. I really love it.