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Milk documentary garners external support for Binghamton cinema professor

By : Lindsay Klemas

Although not yet complete, and still unnamed, an experimental documentary on milk has already garnered attention for Ariana Gerstein, assistant professor of cinema.

Gerstein, who is working on what she refers to as “the milk project,” was recently awarded a third grant for this experimental film — a $35,000 Independent Media Artists grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Gerstein has also received grants from the New York State Council on the Arts and the Rockefeller Foundation, bringing total funding for the project to about $100,000. The experimental documentary focuses on the cultural, political and economic history of milk consumption in America.

Work began on the untitled documentary three years ago when Gerstein became interested in agricultural issues.

In her reading, she learned about the recombinant bovine growth hormone, a genetically modified hormone that is injected into cows to produce greater quantities of milk at a more rapid pace. The hormone remains in the milk produced by the injected cows.

The controversial use of the hormone has sparked debate about milk consumption nationwide. Gerstein interviewed many pro and anti-milk activists throughout the country for her documentary.

Additionally, she interviewed a wide range of people from across the country, ranging from college professors to dairy farmers, from sociologists to baby bottle collectors. Her work has also put her in contact with milk experts from California, Chicago and New Jersey, as well as from all across New York.

Gerstein uses historical figures in the film as well, including Robert Hartley and Herman Bundesen. Hartley, an early consumer advocate, revolutionized the milk system in New York City during the 1840s at a time when only 50 percent of children lived to the age of five. Bundesen, a Chicago health commissioner during the 1920s, helped to change the way Americans talk about food and health through advertising and social action.

“The story of milk in America is a story about progress,” Gerstein said. “It is also a story about ideas of perfection, purity and exclusion.” The documentary, Gerstein said, is not for or against milk. Rather, it focuses on the numerous debates historically surrounding milk and America’s relationship to the white liquid.

Gerstein continues to interview, gathering information and produce footage for thr documentary, and encourages anyone interested in contributing to the film to contact her.

After its completion in 2006, Gerstein hopes her documentary will find an audience in university and independent art theaters across the country. “I hope this film appeals to all groups of people and gets a lot of distribution,” Gerstein says. “After all, everybody eats.”

This is not Gerstein’s first food-focused documentary. In 2002, she and her husband, Monteith McCollum, produced “Hybrid,” a 92-minute film about corn. Produced by the couple’s film company, Latent Films, the project aired on PBS and earned numerous awards including the Fipresci Critics Award at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, the Grand Jury Award for best feature at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah and the New York Times New Vision Award at the Newport International Film Festival in Rhode Island.

“I’m interested in the challenge to come up with things to film,” Gerstein says. “I want to make something interesting cinematically out of something that other people wouldn’t originally notice. It’s a difficult, but fun process.”

Gerstein has some ideas in the works for her next experimental documentary — a topic she feels is the complete inverse of creamy and white milk:

“I think I’m going to do my next documentary on soil,” she said.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08