Boobs. We all have them, and yet it’s women’s breasts that more often than not stir up the controversy: Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl XXXVIII “Nipplegate” alone registered more than a half-million complaints to the FCC in 2004. When it comes to breastfeeding, the public debate gets even louder and more complex. Just recently, more than 100 moms staged a “nurse-in” protest at a Los Angeles Anthropologie after a woman was asked to feed her child in the bathroom instead of at the back of the store.
In her documentary, Breastmilk, first-time filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari’s dives headfirst into these issues by lensing the stressful, chaotic lives of new parents—single moms, same-sex and more traditional couples—from varied social and economic strata. The film seems like a natural progression for executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, whose earlier documentary, The Business of Being Born, examined the American birthing industry.
Ben-Ari’s film captures portraits of American families, revealing myriad opinions and attitudes to a process that’s as old as motherhood. While many studies have shown that breast-feeding children to six months is often better for a baby’s early health and development, there are both personal and professional reasons why parents go the formula route. The film casts no judgement on choices made (leaving that for some of the subjects to do); instead, it wisely chooses to illuminate a complicated subject for the public at large.
Through interviews with the film’s core families, a few of the polarizing issues surface, including the debate on exposing or covering breasts with “hooter hiders” when feeding in public; pumping at the workplace; milk production variances among mothers; and the buying and selling of breast milk. Ben-Ari also doesn’t shy away from more taboo subjects, briefly including discussions around male lactation, sexual titillation and the “lactation porn” film subgenre.
Most eye-opening for those not personally familiar with breastfeeding is the sense of guilt that overwhelms some mothers—that they’re somehow failures if they’re unable to breastfeed or produce enough milk on their own. One new mother in the film is a biologist who is adamant about breastfeeding, but when nature has different ideas, her self-reproach is difficult to watch. Conversely, a lesbian couple seems quick to judge women who can’t produce enough breast milk or choose not to breastfeed. The non-biological mother of the couple even boasts about her ability to breastfeed even without giving birth.
Breastmilk includes many more snippets of interviews, some as fascinating and revealing, others less so. The stories especially come to life through dichotomies found in the interviewees’ actions and candid remarks. One school librarian pumps on camera while eating a salad during her lunch hour; another mother refuses to be filmed pumping in her office because, she says, “I feel like a cow, and I sit here and moo.”
Ben-Ari and cinematographer Jake Clennell include humor in scenes that help keep the film’s momentum going when some of the interviews lose steam. These moments, which include the nonchalant use of breastmilk in a family’s meal and a little girl happily blowing bubbles in breast milk, are tame in comparison to the film’s visual centerpiece. A montage set to “Casta Diva” (from the opera Norma) features nipples squirting and spraying milk in slow motion like the choreographed fountain show in front of the Bellagio Hotel in Las Vegas. The breaks of visual levity, however, are few and far between.
Breastmilk doesn’t shy away from showing a variety of female breast shapes and sizes (in a nonsexual light) on screen. The camera work, like the tone of the film, remains as objective as possible; but despite this careful presentation, squeamish or prudish audiences may still be put off. For those who can stifle the uncomfortable memories from junior high health class, Breastmilk proves to be an eye-opening and educational experience, illustrating the complexity around a seemingly simple choice of feeding babies mother’s milk in modern America.
Director: Dana Ben-Ari
Starring: Nearly three dozen participants and breastfeeding experts
Release Date: Currently available on iTunes, Amazon Instant Video and Google Play
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.