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Two unique documentaries on important women’s issues from the fourth annual DOC NYC, held November 14 – 21, are succeeding to wider distribution, in theaters and on such video-on-demand platforms Netflix and iTunes, as well as special screeningss. Both films make clear that what affects women impacts everyone else in their lives.
Breastmilk The World Health Organization and the National Institutes of Health have declared that breastfeeding is the most normal and optimal care for infants. Sure there were past scandals of huge corporations pushing formula profits. So it should be standard to successfully breastfeed a baby in New York, as I did over 30 years ago while working (one son for nine months and the other for eighteen months), right? But just as I was surprised to see in executive producer Ricki Lake’s 2008 documentary The Business of Being Born that my natural childbirth experience was now more atypical, a biological process that evolved so even cave people could thrive is endangered. My mother thought I looked “tribal” breastfeeding, yet the how-to seems to have been forgotten.
There’s plenty of explanations here, from comic to didactic, feminist, historical, sociological, sexual, and symbolic (even breast as phallus), with various lactation experts (not only the dogmatic La Leche League). But what makes Dana Ben-Ari’s first documentary so fair and thoughtfully absorbing is how she follows an economically and racially diverse group of New Yorkers – married with husband, unmarried, lesbian, with another child, supportive family or not, straight-laced to hippie, from student to working professional. Counting down to the due dates of the planned and unplanned pregnancies at private and public clinics, doctors’ offices, and hospitals, she first charts their prenatal preparation (what the PBS series Call the Midwife calls antenatal), and the expectant mothers’ hopes, fears, and expectations of breastfeeding.
Unfolding over time as a suspense story from late pregnancy through newborn and beyond, Ben-Ari visits at regular intervals of weeks, then months, as the bodies of mothers and babies change. Each woman is honestly unpredictable as to who can withstand all the surprising pressures to stop breastfeeding when they are at such vulnerable points of fatigue, worry, and insecurity (“I feel like a cow”), just when they need the most sympathetic support. (Frequent calls to my midwife for practical advice were very helpful for me.)
Discouraging for any advocate, their plans pretty much go out the window. Instead of being convinced by the convenience and mutual comfort, they are constantly barraged more with how to “overcome difficulties” and warned by medical professionals of dubious issues such as “enough milk” and (incredibly) nutritional deficits as formulas and milk substitutes are dangled. Shockingly, there is not a word of the warnings I got on how to cope with the expected growth spurts (at three weeks, around eight weeks, three months, six months, and nine months) until both synced bodies adapt and are not identified here as the key risk points for anxiety and risk for discouragement.
Instead, the ease of expressing milk (albeit within the luxury of private, relaxed time) has been replaced by guilt-induced harping about mechanically-assisted pumping, with appliances costing up to $3,000, that raise other discomfort issues, though the pro’s and con’s of breastmilk co-op sharing banks are covered as well. At the Q & A after the “Mommy & Me” screening I attended along with many nursing babies, the director emphasized the solution rests with women themselves “fighting back”. Released by CAVU Pictures in theatres in time for Mother's Day, this important lesson for parents, parents-to-be, and health providers is also streaming on iTunes.
Brave Miss World
Think the Miss World pageant is just a superficial display of pretty women? Watch what was really behind the winning tears of the lovely Miss Israel 1998 and how she has used that platform not only as an extraordinary bully pulpit to inspirationally help women around the world, but in the process transform herself, too.
Director Cecilia Peck (Shut Up and Sing) first travels back with Linor Abargil to her thrill at winning the competition as an 18-year-old, and her excitement at being sent on modeling gigs in Milan, a dream of so many (gullible) young women. But they also revisit her awful path back to the airport, where her travel agent violently attacked and raped her. She managed to get to a phone and call her mother who (this is key) sympathetically advised her to go to a hospital for a rape kit, tell the Italian and Israeli authorities to catch the culprit, and get back home to get herself together to win the international competition in the Seychelles Islands a month later – all before the public found out what happened to her. Her determination to follow through at the trial the next year became a cause célèbre in Israel, and other women there drew on her strength to report this notoriously unreported crime, even as she struggled with her own recovery.
That story alone would be the usual, albeit horrifically unfortunate, celebrity tell-all. But Abargil goes much further in catapulting her unwelcome notoriety, to travel the world literally touching girls and women to publicly share their experiences-- person-to-person, online, and in this film-- and, just as importantly, to seek justice. Not only is Peck there to document her miles of hugs over many years, but also reveals Abargil’s inner journey as her protests against her attacker’s parole sets off a downward spiral of PTSD. Even as she galvanizes a suspenseful search for his other victims to prove a serial pattern, this secular Jew finds solace through religion, and becomes –these are the most surprising images -- ultra-Orthodox (and a law student specializing in abuse cases, interning for the prosecutor on her case). Her relationships with the men in her life, both as friends (one is a producer on the film) and romantic partners, are also frankly discussed, including that she convinces her fiancé, who is supportive through her crusade, to reluctantly follow her observance into marriage. (She couldn’t attend the festival as she was giving birth, again).
While the weakest scenes are already familiar to American audiences, such as her appearance on Oprah and a pile-on of testimonials from other celebrities repeating what’s been in their own shocking memoirs, the rape victims and their loving family and friends at the emotional festival screening I attended did not seem to object. Now available on Netflix, that festival experience can also be felt by watching this moving documentary with someone who has been in any way affected by a too-common crime that needs this courageous exposure.
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