Mommie Dearest: An Interview With Dana Ben-Ari, The Filmmaker Behind “Breastmilk”

Breastfeeding: it’s one of those heated topics of motherhood where everyone has an opinion and they’re not afraid to share it. For me, nursing was just something that was a part of having a baby. I was breastfed, I grew up among women who breastfed, and it was assumed that I would as well when the time came. After a bit of a rocky start, I got the hang of it and had a successful three-year run nursing my son.

Personally, I’m a proponent of breastfeeding, as there are numerous benefits to it for both baby and mother. But I’m also fully aware that we live in a society that is not set up to help support women who want to breastfeed. When debates surrounding breast milk versus formula arise, I’d rather attack the system rather than individuals. That’s why I appreciate the new documentary “Breastmilk” by filmmaker Dana Ben-Ari, which follows a handful of new mothers to learn more about their breastfeeding journey and the challenges they face. There’s no stigma or judgment about choices here. Instead, it’s a refreshing look at breastfeeding in today’s society and the challenges and joys that come along with it.

I had the pleasure of talking to Ben-Ari about the film to learn more. Our conversation, after the jump:

The Frisky: What made you want to create a documentary on breastfeeding?

Dana Ben-Ari: I think there is something lacking in the mainstream feminist movement around this issue, and I wanted to be a part of that conversation. The film is more of an exploration of the challenges that exist for women who try to breastfeed, as opposed to a debate whether we should formula feed or breastfeed. I wanted to start from that point — that many women want to breastfeed, but something gets in the way. We started by looking for volunteers who would allow us to follow them once their baby was born.

Did anything surprise you along the way as you followed them?

Something that became much clearer is how vulnerable so many women are. And how oppressed we still are. I think it’s a continuation of the feminist conversation that we have to continue from the ‘60s and ‘70s where we had to fight for certain rights then and we have to continue demanding certain things now. I think mainstream feminism has to take this on as something that is important for women across the board — and they still haven’t done that.

Did you see any commonalities in the challenges the women faced regarding breastfeeding?

That’s what the film explores and some of the questions we raise. What is missing for these women, whether it’s support from the workplace or their partners or women around them? Or lack of support from the medical establishment? It comes from every angle. It’s up and down and sideways! We hope the film provides some answers, but they’re subtle. We don’t try and solve everyone’s problems on the screen. It’s more of a conversation starter.

How do we ease the tension that exists surrounding the topic of breastfeeding?

The way to ease the tension is talked about a bit in the film [is] that I don’t think we should focus on who’s the better mother or feeling guilt. I think that we really should join forces and understand that the guilt is more on the system at large because the system does not support us and does not provide what we need as women. I’m not as interested in telling women what to do as I am in supporting their decisions. I think that for true support to happen a lot of things need to be put in place.

We need to make more available to them, whether it’s childcare on site, or flexible working hours, or pumping at work, or understanding how their bodies work and what to expect. Until we provide all of that, women aren’t free to make actual choices or decisions. That’s why I didn’t want to make a film about formula or breastmilk, because that really should be a more personal decision. But whether or not a woman has the right to breastfeed in public or has a flexible working schedule or childcare on site – those shouldn’t be personal decisions.

I also had the chance to ask producers Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein a few questions about their connection to “Breastmilk”.

The Frisky: What caused you both to get involved in this film?

Ricki Lake and Abby Epstein: We both thought the film was really well done and beautifully portrayed the complexities around breastfeeding without a lot of judgment.

It was refreshing to see an observational film on such a heated subject. We also thought the film would really speak to the “Business of Being Born” audience. Many women spend a lot of time preparing for birth, but don’t anticipate how challenging breastfeeding can be and aren’t set up with the proper supports in place.

You’re both mothers and must have some experience with breastfeeding. Did anything from the film catch you off guard or surprise you in any way?

Yes, a lot of things! The whole discussion around sexuality and comparing milk ejection reflex to ejaculation was definitely surprising. There are also some amazing things in the film with regard to non-biological mothers lactating and breast milk donors that are really fascinating.

Breastfeeding can be one of the more heated debates when it comes to parenting. Is there anything you learned along the way to help ease that?

It’s very tricky as in some ways society has created too much pressure around breastfeeding, while not giving women the constructs they need to nurse successfully. Yet in other ways, it feels like women are not encouraged enough to breastfeed, especially since most hospitals don’t have lactation professionals on staff and send new parents home with bottles of baby formula. I think what we learned is that it may be a public health issue, but its a personal decision and women need to be supported in all their choices.

“Breastmilk” premieres next week in New York City at the IFCenter, in Los Angeles the following week, and then coming soon to a theater near you!

Avital Norman Nathman blogs at The Mamfesto. Her book, The Good Mother Myth: Redefining Motherhood To Fit Reality, is out now. Follow her on Twitter.