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Thomas Balmès

Babies director lets his subjects do the talking

Thomas Balmès spent almost two years filming Bayar (above) and other infants around the world.

Posted 5/5/2010

French documentary director Thomas Balmès always focuses his lens on other cultures, from Connecticut lawyers to the Indian perspective on mad cow disease. "Looking at how other cultures are looking at us or how they are behaving is more interesting than looking at your own culture which you might be too close to sometimes," he says in a phone interview about his new movie Babies. "I've never done a film in France and [I'm] always trying to shift this perspective." Following newborns Bayar in Mongolia, Ponijao in Namibia, Hattie in San Francisco, and Mari in Tokyo from birth to almost 2 years old, he also shifts the perspective from adult to child, offering a multicultural view of childhood and child raising. (Wendy Ward)

City Paper: You've said you had the most trouble casting the families from Tokyo and America, why was that?

Thomas Balmès: I've got a baby during the filming [and] I would never have expected to have a crew in my apartment for such a long time. It's a totally different kind of commitment when you are on the Mongolian steps. We were not [as] disturbing or intrusive on the families in this environment in Namibia and Mongolia as we were in a 30-square-meters apartment in Tokyo or even in the much bigger house in San Francisco. So the kind of commitment it was necessary to get from the parents in [Tokyo and America] was much more difficult. There was no way we could spend two weeks, 12 hours observing the baby growing up as I could do in Namibia and Mongolia.

CP: Did you have a favorite child?

TB: [laughs] I can't say that. I really loved the four of them, they are like very different, but I like all four fantastic kids, and more than anything else, they've grown up even better than you can see in the film. There is not a kind of dream environment in which to grow, the idea was just to show the diversity of these environments.

CP: The families and babies seemed to forget that you were there. Was there footage of responses to the cameras that you couldn't use?

TB: Not only was there no footage, but even when we were filming we were all totally almost part of the set and of their life. You have to understand that these four babies are all of them born with a camera and a guy behind the camera filming them. So they don't know anything else. [Laughs] So this was totally natural. And so, in a way, the film ends and it's very interesting because we have some shots that are maybe going to be on the DVD bonuses where suddenly around the same age--around 15 months, 16 months--all of them realize there is someone behind the camera.

CP: Did you ever get the sense that you were watching the babies for the parents, especially someone like Bayar who is so adventurous.

TB: This is something that is coming up sometimes. We were definitely not considered the babysitter by the parents. And so, knowing that, we didn't feel like interfering too much when he was doing some adventurous work with the cattle and different things. And he was doing fine. For the first minutes, we thought, Oh God, what is going to happen?, and we had the parents in the back and we just checked with them that everything was OK and it was. They were not that far away--not exactly two meters from the babies, just like maybe 20 meters just taking care of the cattle and aware of what was going on. The thing is, I don't think you can improvise such thing with Western baby, just thinking, Well [Bayar's] been doing that and I'm going to do the same thing with my 2-year-old boy and put him in the middle of cattle. [laughs] I think it's something that both animals and babies, they grow up together interacting like that since always, and I think all of them love and understand the other and trying to be aware and not too dangerous for one another. You can really see how dedicated [the parents] are, so I think it is only representative of these countries, these people, this situation. It's not something I would do myself with my own kids.

CP: Were your contracts with the families different?

TB: The amount and basically everything was exactly the same for all of the families. Then, we had decided, for example, for the baby in Namibia, speaking to the parents, that it would be a good investment for the baby to spend a little bit of the money in cattle. Which was like, instead of putting [it] in [the] stock market in Wall Street, maybe the best investment you can do in Namibia instead of putting all of the money in the bank--which we left some, maybe, for school that she might do--we also booked some cattle in her name for when which she is going to be a bit older. She will be able to sell [cattle] for much more than what the interest would have been for leaving the money in the bank.

CP: I wanted to ask you about the Bruno Coulais' music in the film, which is very beautiful.

TB: I very unusually work with music. This is really the only film I've ever done where I'm having music on the film. But being without a single dialogue, this would have been a bit too much on top of not having any words, any dialogue, any narration, just also to not have any music would have been too demanding for the viewers. We went to the conclusion that music should be there, but definitely not taking too much space and not also being too cute. I didn't want something that would be kind of kids' music. I think if the drama and the emotions is there and the fun is there, you don't need that much.

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