It’s rare to see a documentary these days that doesn’t emblazon the screen with scary statistics and obviously biased quotes. But Breastmilk, a film by first-time director and mom Dana Ben-Ari, and executive producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein of The Business of Being Born fame, uses none of these tactics to convey the filmmakers’ perspectives. In fact, even once the final credits are rolling, it’s hard to tell what the point of view might be.
Contrary to what you might think, Breastmilk isn’t a heart-warming journey into the lives of moms sweetly suckling their babes all day. The first image is not of a downy infant at its mother’s bosom, but a nipple and breast encased in a breast pump, churning away in all of its mechanical, bovine-ish glory. Ben-Ari proceeds to follow five families of various socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds through the first year of their child’s life. We meet a lesbian couple, both from Australia, who are a bit suprised by Americans’ obsession with breastfeeding, milk supply, pumping and the perceived stresses that accompany nursing. There is a frustrated young African-American mother who still lives at home with her parents, goes to school and really wants to breastfeed. She faces obstacle after obstacle, including her boyfriend who prefers formula bottle feeding because it’s faster and he “wants to go out.” We meet an older couple, both biologists who have every intention of solely breastfeeding, struggle when the mother’s milk supply is simply too low. We also meet a Latina mom named Eliana who takes to the process easily but struggles with how it affects her sexuality and marriage.
The stories thread together to create a narrative that is quiet and almost boring in its lack of drama or passion. There’s no obvious zealotry, no railing against the evils of baby formula—just a bird’s eye view into the lives of new parents trying to sort out this responsibility of sustaining their child’s health and well-being. A bit of color comes in the form of interviews with academics and medical experts who are more forthright with their opinions—Fiona Giles, author of Fresh Milk: The Secret Life of Breasts offers her feminist take on society’s obsession with breasts, and some of her snippets are the most insightful, interesting moments in the entire film.
From the opening scene to the many mothers shown at their most stressed, struggling to navigate the intricacies of feeding another human from their own body, I was surprised and actually a little saddened. I never gave the subject much thought—I was lucky that breastfeeding my daughter was simple. So if you are expecting your first child and want to nurse, I’m not sure that Breastmilk should be on your must-see list.
On the other hand, there are moments of pure sweetness and love that partly make up for the darkness. One scene that will stay with me, possibly forever, is when Eliana helps a new mom friend with her nursing technique. They’re seated side-by-side on the couch, and Eliana offers tips and adjustments, which her friend struggles with. Frustrated, she tells her friend (in Spanish, with English subtitles) to hand over her baby, and then hikes up her own T-shirt, bares her breast, and brings her friend’s child to nurse, showing her how the baby’s belly is facing her own, with the little girl’s head nestled in the crook of her elbow. The baby immediately latches and suckles. It’s simultaneously charming and shocking to see this pure expression of love and help from one mom to another. But it is perhaps the biggest lesson of all when breastfeeding is concerned—that moms know best.