What film debuting today is like the BBC's Planet Earth but with oodles more cuteness? One hint: It's not Iron Man 2. The awwwwww-inducing film would be Babies, a new documentary from Focus Features that follows four children around the world from their births to their first steps. For 18 months a team of French filmmakers headed by director Thomas Balmès traveled between the four little costars: Ponijao, who lives with eight siblings in a village in Namibia; Mari, an only child in cosmopolitan Tokyo; Bayar, who lives on a farm in nomadic Mongolia; and Hattie, the daughter of Bay Area parents Susie Wise and Frazer Bradshaw. Hattie, who is now 4, also had the most unique filming experience as she was mostly shot by her father, who also served as the film's cinematographer.
Wise and Bradshaw never dreamed the film would get such widespread distribution—the film opens across the country today—but they found a way to use their new roles as famous parents to help babies around the world: Wise works at Stanford University's d.school and was introduced to a project named Embrace, founded by a students in the Entrepreneurial Design for Extreme Affordability class who traveled to Nepal with instructions to build a less expensive incubator. "When they got there they discovered that in fact the hospitals have incubators, but the reality is that babies born prematurely are born in villages and simply never make it to the hospital in Kathmandu," says Wise. Instead of building a cheaper version of a traditional incubator, they created low-cost infant warmer that looks like a sleeping bag and contains a phase change material that can be made warm with boiling water.
Wise immediately saw the connection between her new visibility and the d.school's newest endeavor. "Embrace had recently started to think about how to get Stateside mothers to be a part of their work, says Wise. "The Embrace connection really stood out to me as a perfect combination and potentially appropriate mirror for the film, bringing together families from the developed and developing worlds." The cause was even closer to Wise's heart due to her own delivery: Even though Hattie had a home birth, the first shots in the film show her in an incubator at the hospital, where she was taken for breathing difficulties shortly after her birth. Embrace was the beneficiary of the film's San Francisco premiere, raising over $8000 for the program, and encouraging continuing online donations.
As Embrace co-founder Jane Chen said about Embrace at TEDIndia 2009, the technology has the potential to help one million babies over the next five years—over 20 million low birth-weight and preemie babies need help worldwide. The first products will be available this year in India, where 40% of the world's low-birth-weight infants are born. These portable infant warmers made for the developing world cost about $25 instead $20,000 for an incubator.
Wise sees her work with Embrace as symbolic of the unique bond that Hattie now shares with three other children around the world, who Wise hopes one day to meet. "We were interested in being a part of the film because we liked the idea that Hattie would be linked from birth in a very interesting way to kids from places very different than where we live," says Wise. "I had a fantasy upon hearing about the film that perhaps as a coming-of-age ritual when she was 12 or 14 we might go to the other countries and meet the other children."