Review: ‘Breastmilk’

Directed by Dana Ben-Ari

Find More Information on ‘Breastmilk’HERE

First-time filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari’s empathetic documentary ‘Breastmilk’ shines an honest light on the modern experience of breastfeeding. The film is informative (did you know that, if given hormone injections and nipple-stimulation, a man can lactate?) but deftly avoids becoming a mere educational video by painting an intimate portrait of five newbie moms. The film reveals the physical, cultural, and emotional pressures these new mothers face while trying to feed their newborns.

The documentary’s principle subjects are a diverse cross-section of New Yorkers, varying in age, ethnicity, and socio-economic status. But they all share a powerful commonality: they plan to breastfeed their kids. “Breastmilk”captures these women’s journeys from the third trimester of pregnancy until one year after birth, exploring the successes, failures, and frustrations in between. Ben-Ari supplements these stories with colorful perspectives from an array of knowledgeable experts and additional first-time parents.

BREASTMILK POSTERBreastmilk”benefits from its refreshing lack of agenda. Executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein previously collaborated on the 2008 documentary ‘The Business of Being Born, an openly politicized take on the birth industry. By contrast, “Breastmilk”treats the subject of breastfeeding with an open mind. Ben-Ari doesn’t shy away from polarizing issues, acknowledging the health benefits of breastfeeding infants without taking a judgmental attitude towards women who are unable to do so, either because of their careers or their physical limitations. The filmmaker instead lets her subjects’ experiences speak for themselves. College student Chrystle and working mothers Karin and Barbara are forced to confront the possibility that their busy lives may not let them breastfeed as much as they planned, while biologist Colleen must come to terms with a body that doesn’t seem to produce enough milk. Meanwhile, lactating juggernaut Lindsay must figure out what to do with her extra gallons, freezing them until she has a plan. Each woman is forced to make a decision based on an entirely different set of physical, emotional, and pragmatic circumstances.

Ben-Ari and cinematographer Jake Clennell elegantly convey the uniqueness of a woman’s breastfeeding experience through an extended montage of lactating nipples, each varying in size, shape, texture, and color. The camera holds steady, forcing the viewer to watch, as each nipple ejects a milk stream as distinct and original as the breasts themselves. One teat leaks white droplets as if from a drippy faucet; another sprays a strong, consistent jet; a third ejects multiple streams like a showerhead. Ben-Ari overlays this montage with classical music, never letting viewers forget that they are watching a beautiful and life-giving process.

Breastmilk”subtly undercuts those who would pass judgment on a woman’s breastfeeding decisions without recognizing that these choices are complex, personal, and specific to the individual. For instance, Australian lesbian couple, Emily and Luki, are allowed to voice their two cents that all women should be nourishing their babies solely with breast milk no matter what. “I’m supposed to somehow be sympathetic or feel sorry for [women who can’t breastfeed]… I don’t feel able to say what I really think, which is ‘I feel really devastated for you that you’re not giving a child breast milk,’ because that would be a judgment on them as a mother,” says Luki. However, Ben-Ari shrewdly places this quote after a segment that establishes both Luki and Emily are breastfeeding their baby. Viewers need not be mathematicians to realize that four breasts is more than two and that Emily and Luki’s lactating prowess comes from this decided advantage. When a squeamish father suggests that it’s impolite to breastfeed in public, because what really matters is “manners,” Ben-Ari responds with an in-your-face smash cut to a buxom woman proudly and shamelessly feeding an infant at each breast in the middle of her office. Ben-Ari’s message to men is clear: this is a natural, biologically necessary process, so get over your hang-ups!

Breastmilk”wages war on squeamishness with a slew of unflattering, well-lit breast-pumping close ups. If breastfeeding is beautiful and natural, then breast pumping is something else entirely. Working-mother Karin refuses to be filmed breast pumping, explaining, “I feel like a cow. Basically, I sit here, and I go moo.”

This material is elevated by the filmmaker’s ability to capture not just the physical experience of breastfeeding, but also the emotional one. To this end, Colleen is the film’s beating heart. Viewers will watch as Colleen’s initial optimism about breastfeeding quickly sours, and her efforts – from endless pumping to surgery on her tongue-tied baby – continue to bear no milk. Viewers are put inside Colleen’s head as she questions whether society is judging her for her inability to lactate and whether this deficiency is diminishing her bond with her son.

No film about breasts would be complete without a healthy discussion of sex, and “Breastmilk” doesn’t disappoint. Ben-Ari touches on the sexual fears of men and women as they pertain to lactating breasts. Some men fear being sprayed with milk during sex, while Emily and Luki clearly don’t mind at all: “The breast milk goes everywhere… You just have to put down some towels.” These sex discussions are hardly the meat of the film’s message, but they provide needed and effective comic relief. MD Jack Newman’s reaction to childless women asking for lactation help is particularly priceless: “I’m not interested in helping go-go dancers lactate and spray milk all over their customers.”

Breastmilk”is not a perfect film. Its appeal is niche, primarily targeted to mothers and women who are considering motherhood. The stories of the other women don’t have the same resonance as Colleen’s, and Barbara particularly gets lost in the shuffle. Ben-Ari also shows a penchant for allowing intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals to drone on too long about esoteric, academic theories; if the filmmaker had devoted less time to this, there would have been room to explore the nuanced emotional journeys of more of the mothers. These shortcomings may prevent “Breastmilk”from being the world’s most riveting affair, but Ben-Ari shows herself to be a filmmaker of surprising depth, empathy, and open-mindedness. The film is a testament to the pains, struggles, and insecurities women overcome to nourish their children during that first, crucial year of life. More than anything, “Breastmilk” is a love letter to mothers, women, and breasts. And what man, woman, or child could possibly object to that?

Jason Teich

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