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Interview: Dana Ben-Ari discusses her debut documentary 'Breastmilk'

The documentaryBreastmilk” marks the directorial debut of Dana Ben-Ari, and it deals with a subject we think we know a lot but really don’t: breast feeding. It follows first-time mothers of different ages and backgrounds as they deal with the breast feeding process in various ways and documents the successes and struggles they are forced to endure. While some are pro-breast feeding, others find themselves relieved about not having to go through with it. But throughout the making of “Breastmilk,” Ben-Ari never judges the families and prefers to present their stories as objectively as possible. Sure, there are a number of instructional videos, books, experts, lactation experts and do-it-yourself guides you can find on YouTube, but there really hasn’t been a film that explores real people going through it until this one came along.

'Breastmilk' the documentary-slide0
Aleph Pictures
Dana Ben-Ari, the director of "Breastmilk"
Dana Ben-Ari, the director of "Breastmilk"
Photo by Rich Polk

I got to speak with Ben-Ari when she was in town to do press for “Breastmilk,” and I congratulated her on making a documentary that will appeal to both women and men. It certainly promotes a lot of discussion on the subject of breast feeding, and it will be interesting to hear what people who see this documentary have to say about it. We talked about what drew her to make “Breastmilk,” how she went about choosing its participants, what surprised her most about the making of it, and the importance of including gay couples as well in this debate.

What was your main inspiration for wanting to make this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I am a mother myself and I am pro-breastfeeding, and I’ve seen many women in many families struggle and go through these similar experiences. I thought that this would be fun and interesting to explore on camera because I think that it is part of a larger conversation around feminism, and I thought that voicing and making these experiences visible would be very helpful and important.

In regards to the people who participated in this documentary, how did you go about selecting them?

Dana Ben-Ari: We posted various flyers and we posted on parent sites and groups and word-of-mouth and friends. We had an overwhelming amount of emails and stories shared, and then we realized that we wanted to find pregnant women who were carrying their first child so that we could have a more immediate first time experience. We started with that, and then I wanted to have a few other families participate in the conversation because I thought that families with slightly older kids, as you see sprinkled throughout the film, just provide a little bit of a different perspective than the young families who are going through it for the first time. That’s how we came out with that balance.

Have you kept in touch with the participants since you finished making this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Yeah, a few of them came to one of the Saturday night screenings and then the Sunday screening. We’ve been in touch. A few people have moved out of New York, but the ones in New York try to come to the screenings when they can.

Were there any really big surprises while you were making this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: I learned a lot about filmmaking because this is my first film, so that was quite interesting. I had a great cinematographer (Jake Clennell) who taught me how to be in the room but still respect the space and the experience, and we really learned a lot about being patient and giving that families time. What also stood out was how vulnerable all of these families are and how women are still oppressed.

One woman talks about how women are still made to feel bad about their bodies, and that’s a shame. You get the feeling that people who say that probably don’t understand what the experience is like, and we are seeing that experience in front of us. They are doing the best they can.

Dana Ben-Ari: Right. All of these families are doing the best that they can.

One of my favorite scenes is when a white couple goes to one of the black mothers and gets bags of breast milk. It reminded me of picture I saw in a magazine where a heart from a white person was placed next to a heart from a black person, and you see that there’s no difference between them. It’s the same thing with the breast milk because, in the end, milk is milk. How did you come to get that scene?

Dana Ben-Ari: We knew that we wanted to show some donations, and I looked for women who were looking for milk donations. One of the women that we had been following did have a lot of milk that she wanted to donate, and I asked her if she wanted us to help her find somebody. So we followed the adoptive mother through a number of attempts, and then we also had this one. We had a couple more milk donations scenes that didn’t make the cut, and we were just left with this one which was really a great scene because so much gets covered. There’s so much you can discuss from that one little moment, and that was very natural actually (those reactions).

Was there anything in particular that you wanted to capture but were unable to for one reason or another?

Dana Ben-Ari: Not so much. I’m quite happy with everything. We packed so much in. I wish we’d have more time to develop more stories, but as far as 90 minutes go I think we covered quite a lot. There’s so much there that I think people may not have thought of, and it just inspires these questions and their interest.

Going back to what the cinematographer told you about respecting the space, can you talk a little bit more about that?

Dana Ben-Ari: He is very good and very talented at what he does, but he also is very good at being very social and knows how to make people feel comfortable. But then also, as a mother myself, I had some experiences with what some of these families were going through, and I really did not get too involved in their journey. So even if some couples were arguing over a formula I really stayed out of it, and that was something he and I discussed that we were not going to get involved in. We were just going to let things play out. Of course, if somebody had asked me privately off camera certain things I would tell them, but we really didn’t want to affect their decisions and their experiences. So I think we did a good job with respecting their choices and their decisions.

I also liked how the documentary dealt with gay couples, both male and female, and you sort of wonder how certain couples deal with that or not being able to give their children breast milk (men can’t, but they do keep trying). It’s great to see them in the groups because what they go through is no different from what anybody else is going through. Was that what you were hoping to show?

Dana Ben-Ari: Yeah, I loved that too. I think it’s like dropping certain things without an editorial just to make people think about what is family and what is community and what does it mean to be male, what does it mean to be female, all of those questions. While there are some differences, the similarities sometimes are really much greater than we realize. I think that those are wonderful moments in the film, and I think it’s important to include a diverse group because our country is diverse. If we just focused on the one or two examples I think we miss a lot.

That’s very true. A couple of days ago I saw the movie “Neighbors” which stars Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne, and there is a scene where Seth gets sprayed with Rose’s breast milk. I was reminded of that when you show the montage of women squeezing the breast to show how much milk can come out of them, and it made the scene from “Neighbors” seem more realistic as a result. What was it like filming that montage?

Dana Ben-Ari: Oh that was a lot of fun (laughs). That was a lot of fun and a lot of women had not really had that experience before, so we left those women feeling very satisfied that they got something of the experience. But really, this movie is about community and the body and how we’ve become and how nice it is for women to get reacquainted with their bodies and also just accept themselves as women. That was one of those celebratory moments in the film and humorous as well.

Are you planning a follow up documentary to “Breastmilk” or do you have different plans for the future?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well I have some ideas but not a follow-up to this. Some people are asking if there’s going to be a “Breastmilk 2;” no, I don’t think so. But I hope to be involved in something fun again soon. I do have to see this through, you know? It’s the first film so I have to do the short film tour and be available for press as much as possible.

How involved were the executive producers, Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein, in the making of this documentary?

Dana Ben-Ari: Well they came on after everything was done, and they’ve been very helpful and supportive in promoting it. That’s really more of our relationship, promoting and reaching a wider audience. They’ve been great.