I’m a mom. I’ve experienced the miracle of childbirth, and it truly is wondrous (and terrifying and, well, sticky). Yet I’ve always been confounded by the popular practice of bringing a camera into the delivery room to chronicle this incredibly private and moving moment. The purpose for many seems to be to hold uncomfortable slide shows for friends and family. That’s entertainment? Personally, I just don’t get it.
Still, during pregnancy, I found myself addicted to the plethora of childbirth reality shows, in which the process of labor and delivery (and typically the first few weeks of baby’s life) is documented with Jacques Cousteau-like surveillance, and then run five days a week on basic cable for all to see. I found it fascinating, yet couldn’t help but ask myself: why do people sign up for this? With all due respect to Andy Warhol, not everyone needs to be famous for fifteen minutes, particularly women in labor and gooey, newborn babies. Many apparently disagree, and to you I say: better you than me.
I also love watching the antics of pudgy, cuddly babies as much as the next gal. I was riveted as I watched the trailer for this month’s documentary film release “Babies,” and oohed and ahhed along with the rest of the audience, making a mental note that this was a “must see.” I admit that it never dawned on me to consider, even for a moment, whether the documentary (or my beloved labor and delivery shows) ran afoul of child labor laws.
Once again, others apparently disagree. A recent AP report speculates that the filmmakers behind “Babies” technically may have violated California’s stringent child labor laws by including a California infant as one of its featured subjects. Under California law (which applies to any type of production filming minors in the state), infants are only allowed on camera for 20 minutes a day and must be at least 15 days old. Legal permits and a doctor’s note are required, and the minors must be accompanied by a nurse and studio teacher — both paid for by the producers. “Babies” follows a year in the life of four infants from around the world, one of whom hails from the Bay Area, as they are born, then gurgle, cry, eat, play and take their first wobbling steps. It would seem the filmmakers did not follow the letter of the law. So will they be fined? Should they be? (Violators face fines up to $5,000 per incident, plus the specter of being denied a permit to film in California in the future).
Representatives for the filmmakers deny any wrongdoing, claiming the documentary is a “wildlife film of human babies.” These babies aren’t working actors, say the filmmakers; they are simply doing the same cute things they would be doing if the cameras weren’t rolling. It isn’t actually “labor” in the sense contemplated by the labor laws, any more so than those adorable meerkats or the marching baby penguins are “acting.” Still, some are up in arms over the film, and a debate is brewing as to whether an investigation should be commenced. The issue will likely turn, at least in part, on whether child labor laws apply only to minors who have been hired to work as “employees,” a matter which many experts believe to be ambiguous.
Compounding the problem for the “Babies” filmmakers is that several recent high profile legal entanglements have put under the microscope the issue of how the entertainment industry deals with minors. A few months ago, kid-centric game show “Our Little Genius” was pulled at the eleventh hour due to allegations of cheating, prompting many child advocates and media watchdogs to question whether the producers had adhered to child labor laws in the first place. And a Pennsylvania Judge recently ruled that child labor work permits should have been obtained for children appearing on the reality television show “Jon & Kate Plus 8,” reasoning that the children — filmed going about their daily lives — were nonetheless “employed” under Pennsylvania child labor laws because (among other things), they sometimes received direction. (So if the San Francisco infant “starring” in “Babies” was induced to smile, laugh or coo by behind-the-scenes wiggling of a stuffed puppy — the fail-safe of portrait photographers — was she really “acting” at the filmmaker’s direction?)
Over the past decade, family-based reality television and documentary filmmaking has been growing in popularity, and critics complain that these blur the line between what is work and what is simply natural or “real life.” This very public scrutiny of minors’ participation in film and television projects could spell trouble for the “Babies” creators.