Mothers have been feeding their babies by natural means for millennia, but the issue is a lot more complicated in our modern world, where women may feel inadequate if they can't breast-feed, guilty if they don't, embarrassed if they do and stressed out over how to do it. In interviews with a wide spectrum of new parents, the new documentary "Breastmilk" takes a frank look at the lactation choices parents make and why they make them.
Now in theaters in New York, opening in L.A. on May 16, with a wider release to follow, the film, produced by Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein — who collaborated on "The Business of Being Born" — and first-time director (left), raises provocative questions about this very personal issue.
"I have always been interested in feminism and questions surrounding identity. This particular project was inspired by my journey into motherhood and the many experiences I was witnessing around me. I wanted to give those stories a platform and visibility," says Ben-Ari. "There is still much ignorance around breast-feeding and there are so many taboos. Film enables the storyteller to confront the viewer in an immediate way that can often engage and inspire empathy and a deeper understanding of the subject and the experiences. We are failing women by advising them to breast-feed, but then not providing them long and paid maternity leave, flexible work environments and knowledgeable and supportive medical staff. Our culture still fears women's bodies, which maintains the status quo: women's oppression."
She feels that breast-feeding raises controversy today because "We live in a puritanical society that still values individual heroism, so most of the parents are left to fend for themselves. Furthermore, mainstream feminism is quite polarizing. All women should be supported with workplace and healthcare policies, regardless whether they chose to work, stay at home or be somewhere in between."
Although she was not breast-fed, she is in favor of it. "My kids are now in elementary school, and yes I breast-fed both of them. I think many women want to breast-feed, but their efforts are stifled. I believe that the guilt and judgment should fall on the culture and system at large — not on the woman."
To get the film's interview subjects, "We posted flyers and reached out to parent groups, friends and talked to people. The outpouring of stories was remarkable, and eventually I decided to pre-screen individuals who were expecting their first child so we can follow them navigating through that new experience. I also then decided to include parents with older children who can give us a more distant and expansive point of view," notes Ben-Ari, who aimed for as diverse a spectrum of people as possible — married, single, gay, straight.
"This film is as much about community, relationships and biology as it is about breast milk. The various experiences create a more thoughtful engagement. Most people are only exposed to the breast-milk-versus-formula debate, and I think that conversation is not only predictable, but misses quite a bit of the more interesting and poignant aspects."
Subjects were aware going in that they'd be physically exposed, "but I think they are now quite surprised how much emotional exposure there is as well," comments Ben-Ari. The film is unrated, but its depiction of bare breasts would likely have earned it an R. Does she find that ironic, when violent movies regularly get a PG-13? "Of course it is ironic, or just simply the reality of our patriarchal society. I am more irritated with the censorship that is happening around our film's posters. I still would like someone to write about how I couldn't have an ad with our celebratory squirting image, and when I submitted that second image of the nursing toddler, it made some publishing outlets and people even more uncomfortable."
As a first-time filmmaker, "I learned quite a bit on the job," says Ben-Ari. "Aside from the technical aspects — I had a very experienced and supportive DP — I had to remain neutral and respect the participants' space and journey. I also really enjoyed the editing process, which is where most of the story gets shaped."
The bottom line and takeaway for audiences, says the Israeli-born director, is that this is an issue for everyone, not just new parents. "The stories in 'Breastmilk' are quite universal. Women are still oppressed and alienated," she says. "Their vulnerability at this time fosters this internalized sense of failure, and that needs to change."
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