Nothing clears a room faster than the innocent sight of a woman breastfeeding her infant in public, yet nothing incites more of a frenzy than a pop star's wardrobe malfunction on national television.
The former provokes discomfort while the latter creates anticipation for the next star-studded event. Despite those differences, what we can all agree on is that boobs are a big deal in America.
Enter Dana Ben-Ari's Breastmilk, an unflinching and often humorous documentary film that explores the struggles and frustrations modern women face with the decision to exclusively breastfeed their newborns. Think you're uncomfortable on your morning commute beside a lactating mother? Try using a breast pump.
SF Weekly caught up with Dana Ben-Ari to discuss stigmas, taboos and her revealing feature-film debut.
Is breastfeeding still a taboo topic in our country and, if so, why?
I feel that, yes, to an extent it is taboo when we still think about breastfeeding beyond the six months or breastfeeding in public as something that the media likes to make a big deal about and talk about as though it is disgusting or shouldn't happen publicly. I feel that we live in a very puritanical society where women's bodies are still kind of mystified and disrespected. That's part of the general attitude in our culture and it is also seen in the attitudes around breastfeeding.
Why do you think breastfeeding is still such a big deal for us societally?
We've lost a generation or two of women who breastfeed because we pushed formula for a while so that women could go to work and feel more liberated. The feminist movement really helped women enter the workforce. That was a great fight and a cause. With that came the encouragement to free women; free them from their bodies and from their attachment to their babies so that they can enter the workforce and be productive in a more male-dominated world with a male working model. While that was a good thing we also had to sacrifice. We sacrificed being closer to our families. This is what we're still coming out of. We have this pendulum that goes back and forth and we're trying to figure out where we are right now. How we accommodate women in the workplace is still something that needs to be addressed.
You're already touching on this, but why a movie on breastfeeding in 2014?
I think it's [breastfeeding] still something that women are trying to do and accomplish and they have a very hard time doing so because of everything that stands in their way, so the workplace and the general attitude around women and women's bodies make it very difficult for them to succeed. While the medical establishments agree that breastfeeding is healthier for babies and moms, there's still some ignorance involved. There are still doctors and nurses who are not as educated and there's still the workplace that doesn't provide the maternity leave or the flexible environment. There are still fathers and partners who want to help but are not quite sure how to fit in. It's still a very relevant topic. It's not something that will be easy for women to succeed in.
Why did you decide that film would be the best medium to explore this topic?
I became a mother and learned about some of these complexities. I heard many stories around me and learned more about the families that were going through all these challenges and so I thought that it would be an interesting topic to explore because it hasn't been explored before on film. I wanted to make this issue more visible. We just don't see enough images of this in our culture. We don't know what breastfeeding looks like. We don't really know what it feels like until we have to go through it. I feel film would really force the audience to look at it and face it as opposed to reading about it in a book.
The film manages to cover just about every personal aspect of breastfeeding imaginable in such a short amount of time. How did you find the parents profiled in the film?
I posted fliers and I asked around, also word of mouth and parenting sights. There were so many women who wanted to participate in this conversation. We got so many stories too through email but some of these stories had already taken place, so, I wanted to follow the women who were going to experience this for the first time. That's when I decided that I really needed to find pregnant women who wanted to commit to trying to breastfeed so that I could document what their experience looks like firsthand.
The movie is quite explicit in its depiction of breastfeeding. It's at times uncomfortable, at times humorous and quite moving. One montage in particular might be one of the funniest and most daring pieces of filmmaking we've seen in a while. What was your thinking behind those shots?
I wanted to show women's breasts. I wanted to show pumping. So many women don't really know when they're faced with this need and they get the pump and they're at a loss. They don't know how it works and most people don't know what the lactating breasts looks like or what the milk looks like and so this was very important from the beginning. Even from the title Breastmilk, to be upfront and direct and open about it as possible as opposed to come up with some obscure title. From the beginning you know what this is going to show you. I wanted to be as direct as possible.
Speaking of, do you know why it is that the breast pump design is still so outdated and uncomfortable? Any chance it'll ever enter the 21st century?
I don't but there are so many different ones. You do have to be fitted in the way that you have to be fitted for a bra and it is uncomfortable. We're not meant to be pumping on machines. There used to be a time when women didn't have pumps. Hand expression is much more comfortable and natural but it's hard to do if you're in the office. That scene [in the movie] with the pump is this moment of woman vs. machine. Most women have a love hate relationship with their pumps. It is a machine but this movie is biology and community and our relationship to this machine.
Ultimately, what do you hope to accomplish with this film?
The film suggests that there are improvements to the culture, in the workplace, in the medical establishments and even within families in understanding how women need more time and more patience. There's the hippie couple in the film where the woman says that breastfeeding requires us to slow down. Slowing down is something that is very much in contrast with our current culture. There are things within our culture that just don't necessarily support and promote a healthy breastfeeding beginning and those things need to be addressed and understood so that women can feel more encouraged and more supported.
Everybody has at least one woman in his or her life whether it's a lover or a mother or a sister or a friend. We're all surrounded by women in one way or another. The movie makes all of these experiences and challenges more visible. You can't really improve on anything if you don't voice and share.
Breastmilk opens Friday at the Roxie Theater.