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Mary Helen Ayres,
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babies are the window to very subtly contrast cultures
With no narration, virtually no subtitles, dialog mostly either indistinct or in an unknown foreign language, and no music at all, Babies lets you paint a very wide variety of interpretations on it. You can't even shoehorn it into the stereotype of a filmmaker who only tips his hand a couple times over the duration of the film; the filmmaker doesn't show his hand in a completely unambiguous way even once. If this film turns out to not have a lot of mass audience appeal, my guess is it will be because of this almost militant ambiguity, more or less forcing every audience member to do all their own thinking.
Perhaps the most common way to interpret the film is a simply a huge "cute fix". This interpretation isn't necessarily bad, or even definitively overly shallow. What would be wrong-headed though is straight-jacketing the film so the "cute" interpretation is the _only_ legitimate interpretation, something that's definitely not the case.
Another way to look at the film is the real topic is comparative societies, and it happens to use babies as a window to get at the real topic.
Different values around and approaches to sanitation come up quite often; one could even possibly interpret them as the main theme of the film. Some of the babies are shown crawling around in the dirt, so much so their legs are a different color. And some of them are shown crawling around in shallow pools of water. Some mothers are shown cleaning their baby's bottom after a poop by scraping their bare bottom on the mother's knee, then wiping the poop off their knee with an old corn cob. On the other hand some babies are shown pooping in their diapers which we know they'll have to continue wearing for a while. Yes some of the things we see are very different from how we're used to doing it (which to be fully honest isn't always as good as we're used to thinking it is:-). But as far as we can see none of the babies ever gets sick - suggesting that sanitation styles don't matter as much as we think.
Different approaches to discipline are shown only a couple times, contrasting the "spanking" and "not spanking" approaches. In both cases we get the impression the baby can't even figure out what behavior caused the discipline (even though it only happened a few tens of seconds earlier). The message seems to be that trying to discipline really really young kids is just a waste of time. In any case, these few scenes are so sparse and so brief it's obvious they can't form the basis of a valid interpretation of the whole film.
It was clear babies need to see and touch in order to learn; they're very much concrete learners and aren't set up to handle abstract concepts. The baby seeing a slaughtered goat in the dirt or learning to eat bits of fatty meat from a communal pot or even watching flies buzz around some bare bones seemed to be on their way to grasping how life works. On the other hand the baby subjected to a bunch of mothers sitting on a carpeted floor and singing a song about "the earth is our mother" clearly didn't get it; in fact, the baby tried to simply escape from the whole scenario.
To some extent all babies want the same few things, and raising babies is focused on these things: getting enough sleep and enough to eat, fitting in with older siblings, figuring out how to move around and ultimately how to talk - these simple things fully occupy babies. What seemed different to me is where the babies were headed - some were taking their first small steps toward adulthood (although clearly it would take a long time to get all the way there), while others were headed for a separate period of "childhood". While the contrast between babyhood->adulthood and babyhood->childhood->adulthood was present throughout the main part of the film, it was especially obvious watching the somewhat older toddlers in the considerable additional footage beside the closing credits. Those headed directly for eventual adulthood started to play with and mimic the behaviors their elders used to obtain food. On the other hand those headed for childhood never saw an adult doing something they got paid for, and apparently had no concept of earning one's living.
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