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Milk in the Land won the Atlanta Film Festival’s “Special Mention for Artistry in Documentary Filmmaking.” That’s just about the perfect award for this documentary on milk that’s more tone poem than essay.

Land of Milk

How does milk make you feel?
How does milk make you feel?

The documentary doesn’t have a central argument. Rather, it fills in a few of the gaps the audience’s knowledge about milk in America. The movie starts in the 1800s, when more beer than milk was consumed. There was actually a close connection, contends the movie. When making beer, there are soggy, spent grains left over. These grains often went to feed urban dairy cows. The low-quality “swill milk” was cheapened further by unscrupulous milksellers adding water to stretch their product, and adding chalk to make the color seem right.

The film includes footage from a speech by Richard Nixon pandering to American milk producers. There is footage of cargo trains full of surplus powdered milk, purchased by the American government and stored in caves. The movie implies, but doesn’t actually say, that more of this government milk goes into storage than comes out.

The movie visits modern-day producers, including one who winters his herd outdoors and produces milk seasonally, contrary to want most modern dairy producers do. Another producer is a milk (and whole-food) activist who says that unhomogenized, unpasteurized, is the best thing you can do for your body, and that it can even cure Lyme disease. But another activist in the movie says that milk is literally poisoning Americans. We report. You decide.

Documentaries These Days

Milk in the Land illustrates what’s wrong with a lot of documentaries these days. For 90 minutes, filmmakers will approach a topic from many different sides. They’ll get interesting subjects who are passionate about their topic and who make interesting characters in a movie. But when it comes to actually informing the audience, the filmmaker puts her hands up and says “that’s not my job.” Two examples that spring to mind are Capturing the Friedmans, in which allegations of child abuse are examined, but not pursued; and Lake of Fire, in which anti-abortion and pro-choice advocates grab the filmmaker’s microphone and yammer away.

In the case of Milk in the Land, the historical reportage is played for laughs or shock value and not for factual content. Firebrand advocates make unsupportable claims, unchecked by the filmmaker. Is milk literally poison? Can it cure Lyme disease? The answer to both is “of course not,” and it’s irresponsible for a reporter to let these assertions get out unchecked.

But a documentary filmmaker is not necessarily a reporter. A documentary is often more a work of art than a work of reportage. And an artist can expect different sort of audience — establishes a different type of communication — than a reporter. The responsible filmmaker, however, has to be careful not to use the “art” excuse to mask her own laziness in doing the relatively hard work of research and fact-checking.

Evaluation

For directors Ariana Gerstein and Monteith McCollum (Hybrid), the “art excuse” is genuine and valid. Milk in the Land is much more focused on the visual presentation and the atmosphere than on facts and figures. They seem to have learned from the Brothers Quay that stop-motion animation of physical objects can make their footage seem haunted. Instead of using title cards, they’ll find headlines that say what they want, and then highlight or magnify the key phrase using the animation technique. Or they’ll present written quotes from Al Capone, Groucho Marx, and other thinkers, handwritten and highlighted as though from some amateur silent film.

It all adds to the great visceral tone of the movie, which is spooky, sad, and perhaps a little cautionary. The film doesn’t take a stance against milk. But as with meat, the more you know about it, the less you may want to consume it.

Milk in the Land is better than most documentaries when it comes to visual style. That style may make the movie seem a little slow for mainstream tastes, and as a documentary, it’s not really educational enough to be nutritious for children. But if you’re looking for a memorable documentary that will stand out from the crowd at a film festival, Milk in the Land may be just the ticket.