It’s been part of human life for thousands of years but recently, scientific ‘betterment’ and the pace of modern life has made it more of anomaly than regularity – that practice is breastfeeding. Dana Ben-Ari’s new documentary BREASTMILK looks at the whole array of issues that women making this ‘retro’ choice face, and hopefully inspires a few more to consider it.
What’s great about Ben-Ari’s film is that it is wholly unscientific. Sure, there are a few interviews with doctors who agree that breastfeeding is better for the baby, but mostly it’s about the families who are doing it. One woman has a full time job and complains about how late she is to nearly every meeting because she’s in her office pumping. One woman’s having trouble producing a enough milk to feed her child and is torn by feelings of guilt and failure. One lesbian couple is sharing the duties, with the mother who did not have the baby still able to lactate due to hormonal realities that are instinctual in nature. The film never sugarcoats the issues, this is a hard choice, and many women find it too much to mesh with their lifestyle. However, those who are able to make it work, find it to be essential.
BREASTMILK is not a narrative-driven documentary. Although there are several mothers we follow over the course of the film, checking in with them at various times of their baby’s lives, the film never feels like it is trying to tell anyone’s story. In fact, there are so many examples of different mothers and families, that most people watching the film will find themselves reflected in it. There is even a ‘my-two-dads’ couple that that rely on milk given to them from other mothers, a milkshare program, which is really inspiring. The film is not a facts-and-figures type documentary; it never tries to convince you that breastfeeding is the right thing to do. In fact, one of my favorite interviews comes from a psychologist who says that most women will tell you they are breastfeeding because it is better for the baby but there is some personal choice that leads them to this, something for them.
Ben-Ari’s film works because it lets the mothers (and fathers and grandmothers) tell the story themselves. And nothing is off limits. There are impassioned ‘lactivists’ who look down on other mothers, there ‘formula-pushers,’ and there is even a frank discussion about sex while breastfeeding and lactation porn. This is a funny, honest film that is unafraid to discuss a topic that has become taboo in modern culture, and to discuss why it’s become taboo. “I wanted to tell the human story behind breastmilk,” Ben-Ari says. “Every family has their own individual story around it and I feel we need to pay greater attention to them, to really hear them with empathy and without judgment. I knew if I was going to make a film about breastmilk I did not want to make the typical ‘formulaic’ film – pun intended – about the age-old debate of formula vs. breastfeeding. To me, those questions have already been decided, at least scientifically. But that debate also misses the bigger point – which is what is actually happening? I was more interested in how things really work in the world, how the personal becomes so political in this realm, how issues of gender, class and race come into play and how there may be better models for how women can support one another in making breastfeeding decisions. Most of all, I wanted to allow parents to relate their own experiences, without stigma.”
Breastfeeding has a long history in human culture. As far back as ancient Mesopotamia, wet nurses signed business contracts with new parents. But on the other side, philosophers often argued for the ‘natural’ state of parenting. Benjamin Franklin urged early American women to breastfeed, saying: “there is no nurse like a mother.” But what about cases where the mother cannot produce enough milk? This concept is virtually annihilated in the film, with many mothers and doctors saying this whole ‘not enough milk’ concern in modern society is more about undercutting the mother’s greatest strength then really addressing how much milk the child actually needs, as well as just the simple ease of handing the baby a bottle to get on with your day. Still, one of the most impassioned advocates of breastfeeding in the film finds herself unable to accomplish the task, and is wracked with feelings of guilt and failure. “The idea was not to judge what happens to any of these families but to illuminate it,” says Ben-Ari, “it’s also important to acknowledge that even if we achieve more maternity leave and the working environment becomes more friendly to breastfeeding in the future, there will still be parents using formula for a variety of reasons. But it shouldn’t become a means of dividing people or pitting women against one another.”
BREASTMILK found a couple champions in executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, who had taken a similarly fun but probing look at the birth industry in their acclaimed documentary THE BUSINESS OF BEING BORN. “I think that Dana does an excellent job of laying out all the obstacles women face when they are intending to breastfeed,” Lake says, “the film clearly shows that the solution is not telling women how to feed their babies or making them feel guilty about their choices. The solution is making policy changes to support new parents so that our society becomes more breastfeeding-friendly for those who choose to breastfeed.”
So, I’m a guy and I am still at this time, babyless. But I found Dana Ben-Ari’s BREASTMILK absolutely fascinating. It is personal and heartfelt and allows you a view into a world and issue that seems shrouded in mystery to the uninitiated. In fact, it is amazing how much the women in the film discover themselves as they go through it. The delivery is very balanced and honest, and while it certainly advocates for breastfeeding, it never judges the women who do not take up the call.
BREASTMILK is available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google play today, August 5th. Also available, limited edition ‘boobie bags’ which are certain to turn heads (http://breastmilk.bigcartel.com/product/breastmilk-bag-1).
I leave you with these 11 fun facts ‘you never knew’ supplied by the BREASTMILK team. The information is illuminating, but to really understand the full experience, you have to watch the film and meet these amazing mothers.