Thomas Balmès' Art of Bouleversement

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Google French film-maker Thomas Balmès these days, and it will be all about babies. Distributed in the United States by Focus Features, Balmès’ most recent documentary tracks four children on four different continents from birth to their first birthdays. After this viral online trailer and a strong Mother’s Day weekend opening, Babies has continued to draw in audiences in the United States, grossing over $7 million to date. The film opened in Paris, Balmès’ home town, on June 16th 2010, along with 70 other French cities. It is scheduled for theatrical release in more than fifty countries. If its United States showing is any indication, Balmès has achieved a genuinely global hit.

At one level, such success was overdetermined by the subject matter. Babies are (or can be) cute, adorable, charming, and funny. And so it is no surprise that these words recur, along with references to the “awww” factor, in many U.S. reviews of the film. What is perhaps surprising, though, is that so many U.S. reviewers seem unwilling to think more profoundly about the film. There are exceptions: In The Oregonian, Shawn Levy called the film “a deeply ingenious film that takes the most bare-bones concept and derives exemplary moments of cinema and insights into the nature of humanity from it.” But in general—and especially in the so-called “alternative/indie” press—the overt appeal to the heart appears to have ruled out such intellectual engagement. Of the reviews in this category collected on moviereviewintelligence.com, four of five gave Babies only “moderate” reviews, in one case stating baldly “Is Babies a good movie? Of course not.” And in another, comparing the experience of the film to watching “79 minutes of youtube clips.”

Such limited reviews highlight a particular, and deeply parochial, perspective among so-called “progressive” and “intellectual” circles in the United States. They do not know how to think with Balmès’ film. And this is a function of a set of prejudices about documentary work that have hardened in recent years. We can start with Babies’ commercial success: it is (as of now) number 17 in the list of highest-grossing documentaries in U.S. box-office history. The films ahead of it fall into three main categories; (1) nature documentaries which trade in wonder (think Winged Migration or Earth); (2) leftist films which trade in outrage (think Farenheit 9/11: An Inconvenient Truth; Religulous);and (3) extended music videos which are byproducts of star power (Madonna: Truth or Dare; Tupac Resurrection). Babies represents a radical break from all these forms. Its closest kin in the top twenty is Hoop Dreams—now over a decade old. Babies has no voice-over and, aside from Sufjan Stevens’ catchy single which accompanies the trailer, a relatively low-key sound-track. It has no overt political agenda; and, as Balmès himself has reported in interviews, doesn’t present its audience with scenes from nature that defy the imagination, or which need special camera techniques to capture.

It is this categorical break which seems to befuddle many reviewers. Those who try to put Babies in the category of nature documentary complain at the lack of grandeur and exciting photography; those who like their (leftist) politics delivered explicitly and directly miss an obvious “organizing principle” and are prone to consider it only as a “diversion.” The March of the Penguins and Michael Moore have shaped the documentary imagination in the United States more than we realize. Most serious documentary-makers working in the US see commercial success and artistic or intellectual integrity as fundamentally incompatible. Reviewers have caught the habit: and as such, they don’t know what to do with Babies.

One pathway—which none of these reviewers took—would be to put Babies in its context of its director’s trajectory as film-maker. Before Babies, Thomas Balmès directed Damages (2005), A Decent Factory (2004), the Gospel according to the Papuans (1999), Maharajah Burger (1997), and Bosnia Hotel (1996). This filmography shows his global experience, representing respectively shooting in the United States, Finland and China, Papua New Guinea, India and Kenya. What it also makes clear is the development in methodology and philosophy. In particular, Balmès has steadily moved away both from forms of “voice of god” narration (apparent only in on-screen texts in his early films) as well as interviews (which are at the heart only of his first two films). Balmès has moved toward observational or “direct” cinema. The method is demanding in terms of preparation and also in camera time. Babies is drawn from four hundred hours of footage shot over two years or more, whereas Bosnia Hotel draws from around eight hours shot in three weeks. But if one reads the (mostly French) reviews of Bosnia Hotel—which was made on a shoestring budget, with no distribution deal—the integrity and consistency in Balmès’ philosophy are apparent.

That first film was similarly prompted by a simple idea. During the intense fighting in Bosnia in the 1990s, soldiers from all over the world served as UN peacekeepers: among them were Kenyans, and among the Kenyan contingent were five members of the Samburu tribe, from Northwestern Kenya. After reading a story in a British newspaper about their return to their homeland, Balmès went to track them down and document their re-entry to traditional, rural life. Framed around preparations for the initiation of an age-cohort of young men to the status of warriors, Balmès’ film features three veterans of service in Bosnia reflecting on their experiences there. French reviewers were enthusiastic, comparing Balmès’ film favorably with more conventional ethnographic films. In particular, several pointed to the subversive quality of the film. One review suggests it “reverses the anthropological gaze:” others, that, in the French term bouleversement, it overturns cultural prejudice about relations between Africa and Europe. Among the observations of the three Samburu veterans that Balmès interviewed, one was repeated by several reviewers: the outrage and disgust they felt at the widespread use by the rival armies of modern weaponry which brings about the ultimate barbarity, killing women and children.

This same concern, to call into question preconception regarding the relationship between the modern and its others, also caught the attention of reviewers of two of Balmès’ subsequent films, Maharajah Burger (in which citizens of India, where the cow is sacred, discussed the phenomenon of “mad cow” disease in the West, which led to the widespread slaughter of livestock) and The Gospel According to the Papuans. Of the latter film, Balmès himself said in an interview that he sought to give voice to the people of societies which get labeled as primitive, and thus make those who are usually the objects of study into “ethnologists of our own civilization.” Stylistically, The Gospel represented a turning point for Balmès. In it, he moved away from the fixed-camera, interview-based approach of the first two films, instead using a shoulder-mounted camera to capture a greater range of social life. Working closely with professional anthropologists, he also established closer relations with members of the Huli tribe, and chose to follow one central character—Ghini, a senior warrior who had finally resolved to convert to Christianity. Ghini allowed Balmès to document his final days as a non-believer, in the days before the millennium. From this singular, specific story, reviewer Agnès Bozon-Verduras observed, Balmès offered a “universal history.”

In Balmès’ subsequent two projects, he expanded the range of ethnographic study, turning his lens directly on European business practices in China, and on a U.S. legal firm. Now recognized as a talented and passionate film-maker, Balmès was able to assemble funding for larger, longer projects. This gave him the opportunity to adopt the approaches of “direct cinema.” Rather than traveling to the Third World and posing questions to prompt reflections on the West, Balmès was able to gain access to Nokia, the Finnish mobile phone company, as it conducted an “ethical audit” of its suppliers—themselves European subsidiaries—in China, and to a law firm in Connecticut which specializes in wrongful death cases. His rapport with key personnel in both organizations allowed Balmès to film along the chains of depositions, meetings, briefings, and investigations that constitute the practices of modernity. In each case, while the conversations at times seem banal or trivial, the stakes are high, driving the futures of many people, as well as millions of dollars. Describing A Decent Factory—Samuel Gontier called it “un implacable document sur un monde furieusement moderne.” Elsewhere, the same critic noted with approval Balmès’ subtle treatment of the topic, and offers a vision of the role of documentary close to Balmès own. “Le documentariste ne demontre pas, il montre. Il n’est pas militant, simplement pertinent.” In other words, the job of the documentarian is to show rather than insist: and not to be militant, simply relevant. Claire Steiner notes what she calls a certain sadism in Balmès’ film-making, which juxtaposes directly an idyllic retreat of Nokia’s male managers at a spa in Finland, with scenes of the cramped, shared apartments where the Chinese female workforce live.

A Decent Factory was Balmès’ first cinematic release in the United States. In a review in the New York Times, Manohla Dargis set the precedent for the later patterns of reception of Babies in the U.S. Dargis was critical, accusing Balmès of “a cursory, irritatingly facile look at the human cost of globalization” and twice lamenting the film’s lack of “revelation.” Her review makes no specific reference to any scenes toward the end of the film. Specifically, she makes no mention of what other reviewers note—the profound change in tone when the British management team of the subsidiary company, having discovered that Balmès is not only filming for internal Nokia audiences, insist, in the doublespeak of corporate privacy, that he stop. The meeting in which they make their demand is tense and riveting, even without the knowledge that two security guards came into the room to ensure that their wishes were carried out, taking up position behind Balmès and compelling him to put down the camera. So too, at the very end of the film, viewers see that the two women who led the ethical audit have quit Nokia.

In this film, and in Damages, Balmès sheds light on the social processes through which complex systems operate and out of which they are constituted. He trusts viewers to form their own interpretations. And so to Babies—where, I suggest, the lukewarm responses of some U.S. reviewers speak more to their own lack of imagination than the imputed one-dimensionality of the film. As the camera takes us between the four stars—Bayar in Mongolia, Hattie in San Francisco, Mari in Japan and Ponijao in Namibia—the smart viewer can discern a deep rhythm and purpose, as well as a clear thematic structure. A clumsier, less trusting director might even have inserted intertitles--“Language,” “Hygiene,” “Safety,” “Community,” “Sibling rivalry,” “parenting,” “toys,” and “first steps,” to assist the viewer. Though not signposted, these topics are embedded in the film, each providing a dimension along which the film works to unsettle as well as delight.

Seeing the film in a crowded theater makes the film’s different resonances for different viewers very clear. When I saw it in an art cinema in a college town, there were, indeed, a lot of “awws.” But there was also a tremendous amount of laughter—especially when Mari had what, to our meaning-inserting eyes as an audience, looked like an existential crisis at her inability to thread a ring onto a wooden pole. “I have too many toys!” she seemed to be wailing, “and none please me!” Ponijao, by contrast, showed a joyous determination to master the simple pleasure of walking with a tin can on her head—an accomplishment demonstrated by one of the adult women who were a constant, loving presence on camera. The sense of uncertainty that this creates—that perhaps we are trying to compensate for shrinking our kids’ social worlds by surrounding them with things—is further heightened in scenes which make clear the varieties of hyper-stimulation that kids in the industrialized world have to cope with. So when I saw Mari’s mother pushing her stroller up to various animals at Tokyo zoo, or Hattie’s dad sitting with her in a parent-child group, singing songs that celebrate the earth as our mother, I winced in self-recognition. The slyest piece of subversion was perhaps Hattie’s ecologically-aware family heading off for a bike ride, complete with Hattie-in-trailer, in San Francisco. Earlier, when Ponijao had been drinking water from puddles, eating dirt, and sticking her fingers in a dog’s mouth, the audience reaction signaled that we were all aware, and horrified, at the all-too-obvious risks. It is a sign of our cultural blinkers, surely, that we react less to watching a baby being towed in a lightweight trailer through a city full of SUVs and cellphone-using, texting, distracted and hurrying drivers—as if that was any less fraught with danger than sitting by while your baby puts her fingers in the mouth of a trusted family pet.

In every location, Balmès plays with the binary opposites, acknowledging that it is human nature to think with them, but also that life is everywhere lived in the spaces between. Bayar’s home in Mongolia is a key site in this regard, where the family yurt boasts a satellite dish, and where Bayar and his brother have a mixture of plastic toys and “found objects” to pay with. Outdoor and indoor animals, as well as the children, cross back and forth across the threshold of the yurt, and two of the film’s most enduring images—the goat crossing indoors to sip, illicitly, from Bayar’s bath-bowl, and Bayar’s brother wheeling Bayar outside in his stroller, abandoning him to the elements—serve to highlight the work that liminal spaces do to give concrete meaning to the anthropological separation of the worlds of nature and culture. Babies, then, does offer a wealth of ways to think about what unites and separates the worlds of its four “stars” and their families.

But the film also invites its viewers to think about the anthropological concept of “first contact” in a different sense. The soundtrack is unobtrusive, but we often hear adult voices which go unsubtitled. English speakers can of course recognize the San Franciscan mother talking to medical professionals about SIDS (Sudden Infant Death syndrome); what we don’t know is what the Namibian mothers are discussing. But what we can sense—as their kids can—is that they are never physically far away. By this simple means, we are all babies again—we hear language, the sound of humanity, without knowing its meaning. As viewers who know that verbal skills later in life are heavily correlated with the number of words they hear in their early years, we recognize this as unselfconscious education and again—so subtly—a gentle reminder to those of us who think that we are doing our kids a favor with all that over-engaged reading together. Balmès’ film, then, for all its apparent simplicity and lack of artifice, is both a complex work of art and of subversive politics. For all the efforts by its U.S. and Japanese parents to connect and engage, what these sections offer to anyone who recognizes their own lifeways in them is a sense of the deep disconnect, in urban settings in the industrialized world, between the worlds of adult and child. Through the contrast with Namibia and Mongolia, Balmès signaled to me that importance of creating a climate in which our kids have the space or time to be babies on their own terms. For often, in our urge to put our children at the heart of our lives, we aurally and visually pollute their world with the haste, the bustle and the over-stimulation of our own. In one of the most powerful scenes from Mongolia, Bayar is at a social gathering, where there is toasting with alcohol and some singing throughout. In a context that is strange and new, he seeks and finds reassurance in her own calmness; but his face reveals a hint of disquiet in his recognition that she has another life not entirely geared around his. In the course of 79 minutes, Balmès offers us the chance to reflect on how the world we have made looks to its newest arrivals. Yes, there is wonder and outrage: these are the reactions of the infants we watch as they make their way. But Babies’ additional power is it creates space for audiences—and, especially, American critics—to think like adults about the contingency of their deep-rooted beliefs and practices and to engage in a little bouleversement of their own.