Only Natural, by Craig Schroeder
If you could see me, you’d realize I am not an authority on breastfeeding. I’m a six-foot five man, without children, who gets squeamish around dirty diapers, and I have just as much knowledge on intergalactic space travel as I do on a new mother’s body. So, I’m either precisely the audience Dana Ben-Ari was looking for in her new film Breastmilk, or I’m the exact opposite. Having seen it, I’m still not sure.
There are two narratives in Breastmilk. The first is the collection of personal stories from the women and parents participating in the film. Some are able to breastfeed without a hitch, some can’t, despite how hard they try, and some don’t have the means to lactate at all. The second narrative is an (often too) subtle commentary on the supposed social “taboos” associated with breastfeeding. The first narrative is clunky and often isn’t as effective as Ben-Ari intended. The second is much more poignant and could be a scorching feminist, Riot Grrrl anthem; however, the film often focuses too heavily on the individual narratives without ever letting the more interesting subtext break the surface.
Structurally, the film is a bit of a mess. Clocking in at just ninety minutes, Breastmilk features roughly twenty-five participants and subjects. Of those twenty-five or so, only five or six are featured prominently, leaving about twenty subjects to fade in and out of the film. For a film whose general thesis is that breastfeeding is as universal an action as it is a personal struggle, it feels daft to relegate certain stories to b-roll status. In addition, the film has no sense of pacing and Ben-Ari’s narrative influence is often evident via her missteps. New subjects are introduced an hour and fifteen minutes into the ninety minute film, forcing the viewer to reset just as the film is winding down to a natural conclusion.
Ostensibly, for a film trying to demystify breastfeeding, its target audience would be people like myself: those mostly unfamiliar with the physiological process as well as the emotional reaction to breastfeeding. Breastmilk often delves into situational anecdotes where the viewer’s reaction relies on their own experiences, frequently narrowing its target audience by failing to connect the personal and specific stories to its larger themes. Though the film wants to be inclusive, it often unintentionally alienates viewers who don’t have the relatable experiences necessary to connect with its central theses, and leaves them feeling like an outsider at an office luncheon.
Despite the film’s shortcomings, the women featured in the film are inspiring in their fearlessness (which makes the fact that many of them are glossed over all the more frustrating). Nearly every woman featured at length in the film allows themselves to be filmed breastfeeding, some even allow the cameras to roll in the hospital as they try to feed their newborn child for the first time. Ben-Ari is also to be commended for attacking negative stereotypes of breastfeeding head-on, without relenting to anyone who may be “weirded out” by a nursing breast. After addressing the “concerns” of those who are turned-off by a woman breastfeeding, Ben-Ari injects a slow-motion montage of close-up shots of milk triumphantly erupting from nipples, all scored to a victorious piece of classical music. Ben-Ari acknowledges that some people think breastfeeding is gross or shameful, and then deconstructs their argument by presenting a beautiful sequence, as poignant as it is funny.
As a person who fancies himself an ally to feminist causes, I connected with the film’s pro-woman perspective and its advocacy for a woman’s rights to do what comes naturally without being chastised for it. But there are uneven shifts in the film’s tone that narrow the film’s audience, and I often feel like I’m playing a board game without having read the rules. Breastmilk will make you raise a fist in feminist solidarity, despite its rigidity and general confusion.