Noemi Weis gives off an immediate impression of being a woman you want in your corner. Boasting a strong handshake and steady gaze that makes you feel like there is nothing she would rather be doing than chatting with you, she is a warm and passionate presence intent on raising awareness and changing the world. Her film Milk, which had its world premiere at Hot Docs 2015, was made with this ambitious goal in mind. The film takes us “to the beginning of life, to see how we receive babies into the world.” Weis hopes that by returning to the start of life, “maybe we can start resolving problems from the beginning, and that maybe, one day, [she] can retire without having to worry about any more social issues.”
Milk was shot over three years covering eleven countries and thirty-five cities hoping to bring a global awareness to the social and political issues that surround birthing and infant feeding. While tackling this very personal and highly emotional subject, Weis took a step back and tried to be objective, presenting the facts so women can make their own informed decisions about how to handle their pregnancy and the nutrition of their children once they are born. “Dealing with birth at first was the beginning of the film because you cannot talk about infant feeding without talking about birth. That I learned through the process of research.” Any problems with feeding start at the beginning, from the point where the woman becomes pregnant. “Either she’s supported, either she has the right information, the amount of interventions that she has, all of those effect the feeding process.”
We need more women elected into power, we need more policy changers that will understand women’s bodies, so they know the damage that could be caused.
The message of support is one that is central to Weis’s message. Women must support other women and men must respect and support women in their choices. Although the number of men included in the film can be counted on one hand, men are also an important component of the film’s intended audience. The lack of their voices onscreen isn’t representative of their lack of importance in the process of life, rather, Weis stresses, this is a film about the women, “the ones that would never have a chance to talk,” the ones who are the most venerable in our societies “no matter which country we live in.” Changing the mindset of men is a major goal in achieving this culture of support. Weis “thinks men should be in the audience. I think it would be great to have a screening just for men.” For this to happen, “we need more women elected into power, we need more policy changers that will understand women’s bodies, so they know the damage that could be caused.”
The film presents the stories of many women from around the world. For Weis, each woman is a symbol. “They are symbols of many other voices, and that’s why they are not even identified with a name or a country, for the simple reason that I think that any woman can represent another woman, and many other women. It does not make any difference if the woman is in the Philippines or if it’s in Toronto,” the issues faced are the same. The women given voice in the film were all chosen “with very, very strong research behind them.” With so much footage from filming, the process to decide which stories to cut “was painful,” but the objective remained to touch on “the most important issues that we felt needed the most awareness.”
The medicalization and the industry and the commercialization of birth and infant feeding have gone really far.
Weis’s approach is very democratic. “I tried to be very objective and bring both sides of the coin. I don’t think that anybody should be preaching about anything.” She was very careful to not advocate a single position when discussing birth and infant feeding. Instead, she positions herself as a provider of facts and a pillar of support for mothers around the world. She is not interested in passing judgment. Instead, she believes that it is important to inform women who are prospective or new mothers of their options and then let them make their own informed choice “and once we know the facts, respect the intelligence of every woman.” It is very important not to undermine the woman in the third world country, “ because she is very intelligent.” Intelligence must not be taken as synonymous with education. “If the woman has made a decision, that this is what she wants to do because it is best for her and it is best for her baby, she knows best and we must support her. I don’t think we should judge her or we should make her feel alienated. When we have a new mother she is extremely vulnerable because her hormones are working very strongly. As educated as she is, she still needs support and I think that is what we need to do—and inform them. It’s very, very important to inform them. If that woman has an informed decision, then it should be respected.”
In the end, however, Weis sees Milk as “a celebration of life more than anything, and actually telling people, and the audience, let’s not forget that. The film starts by taking the audience through the birth canal, through the water. I went specifically to many locations in order to bring that feeling of going back to nature and into bringing this baby into this world together.” It is a story about tradition, about women and mothers as a community supporting one another. “There’s a lot of celebrations I would like to bring forward with this because the medicalization and the industry and the commercialization of birth and infant feeding have gone really far.” Milk is an attempt to counteract this. “It’s the gift of giving. I think that it’s a celebration to midwives. It’s a celebration to doulas. It’s a celebration to birth.”