An ecstatic montage of lactating nipples, squirting and spraying their nutrient-rich fluids to a soaring performance of “Casta diva,” is the jaw-dropping visual highlight of “Breastmilk.” Fortunately, the rest of Dana Ben-Ari’s gently affecting and insightful first feature adopts a less comically confrontational approach, achieving a remarkable intimacy with a diverse cast of new mothers dealing with the challenges, rewards, misconceptions and anxieties associated with natural feeding. Released in theaters just in time for Mother’s Day, though likely to reach its widest audience in home formats, this refreshingly frank, matter-of-fact documentary should inform and resonate with moms and dads (but mostly moms) who will undoubtedly bring their own experiences to the table.
For those who have never beheld the sight of a woman’s breast expressing milk, much less being vigorously pumped, “Breastmilk” will satisfy their curiosity and then some. In addition to giving us the aforementioned montage of milk money shots (which segues into a brief but informative aside on the popularity of lactation pornography), Ben-Ari and d.p. Jake Clennell bring the camera close to their subjects, granting the audience privileged access to moments in which several new mothers try, with varying degrees of success, to nurse their children. Sometimes the difficulty is physical: More than one infant here has trouble “latching,” and in the case of one child the problem has to be rectified with a quick snip known as a lingual frenectomy (easily the most squirm-inducing moment here).
But Ben-Ari seems just as invested, if not more so, in the social and psychological obstacles that can make breastfeeding problematic, and she explores them with impressive rigor, sensitivity and a refreshing lack of judgment, listening intently while prescribing little. The mothers and fathers she assembles hail from a wide range of ethnic and economic circumstances, but the nursing-related issues they encounter over the course of their first year of parenthood follow no particular patterns of identity or background. If there’s a recurring theme here, it’s the enormous pressure weighing on mothers determined to give their children something widely understood to be healthy, wholesome and natural, even though the process can be stressful, challenging and inevitably hard to talk about.
While some mothers have no trouble producing milk and plenty of it (enough to fill a freezer, in one case), still others fret over not being able to generate enough to meet their children’s needs, and end up considering such alternatives as breast pumps and formula supplements — valid options that can sometimes end up merely compounding their feelings of inadequacy and failure. In its layered examination of this particular maternal-guilt complex, “Breastmilk” would make a fine companion piece to the 2012 documentary “Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin and the Farm Midwives,” which similarly touched on the ways in which well-intended medical practices are sometimes implemented out of haste or, worse, a distrust for the female body and its wondrous natural capabilities.
Produced by Abby Epstein and Ricki Lake as a follow-up to their 2008 docu “The Business of Being Born” (which Epstein directed), the film provides an engrossing array of opinions from experts including community health worker Patrece Griffith-Murray, whose humorous, sensible manner not only puts her patients at ease but also acts as an onscreen tonic, and the Australian writer Fiona Giles, who leads the film down some of its more provocative alleyways. One of the more stimulating topics of discussion here is the difficulty society has reconciling a woman’s maternity with her sexuality, despite the fact that this biological function, generally considered a turn-off from the father’s perspective, has an unmistakably sexual dimension. Or, as one interviewee puts it: “If breastfeeding weren’t pleasurable, that would have meant the demise of the human race.”
Tackling these and other subjects (including the socially acceptable level of public breast exposure), the film uncovers fascinating personal experiences and perspectives wherever it looks — from the school librarian who locks her office door at lunchtime to operate her (rather noisy) breast pump, to the lesbian mother who, despite not having given birth to her daughter, had no trouble inducing lactation (“Two things need to happen for the body to produce milk, and being pregnant isn’t one of them,” she notes). If the documentary’s intense concentration on one short chapter of the child-rearing experience can seem somewhat narrow in retrospect, it nevertheless succeeds in turning its subject into a larger metaphor for parenthood itself. None of these moms and dads have had perfect experiences or outcomes, but in highlighting their struggles to feed their children while fostering intimacy in the process, “Breastmilk” chronicles, and even becomes, an inspiring labor of love.