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Milk In The Land: Ballad of An American Drink (2007) (review)
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Milk In The Land: Ballad of An American Drink (2007), Directed, compiled, and edited by Ariana Gerstein and Monteith McCollum. Distributed by Icarus Films: www.icarusfilms.com, 75 minutes.

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This award-winning documentary provides a surprising and creative cinematic exploration of the ubiquitous drink anyone growing up in America was introduced to as a child, from mother's milk to something arriving on the doorstep in glass bottles long ago, to liquid refreshment purchased at the supermarket in plastic jugs, which is now an essential ingredient for over-priced lattes. Who was not told as a youngster to "drink your milk"? Yet very few Americans probably understand the controversial issues of both the past and present surrounding this refrigerator staple. In addition to the story that Gerstien and McCollum wish to illustrate, they use multiple techniques that are a primer in documentary film production. Film students who are not enticed by a movie on milk will still find this to be a valuable lesson on documentary as a genre using numerous methods to educate ala Grierson.

The film begins by establishing a historical context for the early American dairy industry as an outgrowth of beer and whiskey production. Cows were fed the leavings of alcoholic beverage production in distillery stables. This was not particularly healthy, but most in the nation drank beer and not milk. The early health risks were not considered to be too serious. Later, health concerns and immigrant assimilation would both become the focus of milk consumption.

The filmmakers continue with interviews from both an archeologist and a milk bottle collector filled with pride of ownership. Some collectors prefer to hunt down rare nipples made from changing materials. Artifacts are both nostalgic and scholarly. Milk also reflects upon issues of class, family farms versus agribusiness, politics, and nutrition. One segment shows Richard Nixon extolling the virtues of milk, or his appreciation for campaign contributions from the dairy industry. One interviewee [End Page 66] extols the healthy benefits of a milk-free diet. Others in the film argue that milk should not be big business, and that milk need not come only from cows. This film shows a broad spectrum of attitudes about milk as essentially an American beverage.

As to the construction of this documentary, Gerstien and McCollum use almost every strategy or resource available; archival photos or movies are important to their work. This film has handwritten inter-titles hearkening back to silent film while quoting contemporary celebrities. With the talking heads of so many experts, this documentary also has historical print sources that seem active thanks to good editing. Archival footage adds another dimension, while the framing shots of cows in foggy fields give a disorienting feel of direct cinema. Both archival-manipulators and active interviewers and editors, Gerstien and McCollum have created a forceful film without any bludgeoning of the viewer

Undergraduates may find this film "too long" because some of the lovely, romanticized footage of cows in fog or snow may be too "artsy" or too slow, but if properly introduced with the many issues raised about something so "normal," and "ho-hum" as\milk, this documentary could be successful in the classroom.

Deborah Carmichael
Michigan State University