By Christopher Campbell | Spout August 30, 2011 at 7:12AM
I get a lot of requests to review independent films, particularly documentaries. My primary qualification is that it must be something available to the public, via theatrical or DVD or VOD or online streaming release. Another factor, of course, is that it must sound completely worth the time it takes to watch and then write about a film. Hopefully there is a trailer so I can get a sense of filmic quality, also, not just an interest in the subject and story. So I'll first admit that the trailer for Shira Lane's "Got the Facts on Milk?" somewhat turned me off from accepting it for review.
Yet I couldn't help but be curious about a documentary set about to go against the dairy lobby and the common misconceptions about milk and its byproducts. After all, I am a cheese fiend and someone who downed glasses of milk like it was water as a teen. I may find liquid milk rather unappetizing now, but I don't exactly know why. Surprisingly, this appears to be the first feature film to tackle the subject (broader studies promoting veganism do exist, but this is focused narrowly and is not even necessarily anti-dairy), so I had to give it a shot.
(above is the more recent, official trailer for the film)
About the offending aspects seen in the teaser trailer I watched, most of them relating to the filmic quality, these things could not eliminate the intrigue. As much as I dislike a lot of man-on-the-street interviews I had to recall that in spite of its terribly pandering use in "Hot Coffee," I did acquire enough information from that film to make it a success. The fact that Lane formats her doc as a very subjectively styled investigative road trip seems in theory to be irritating, but it worked for Josh Fox and "Gasland." All the dancing around and obnoxious mugging for the camera (no surprise Lane has a performance background) appeared to be hardest to get over, but making up for it would be the testimonial interviews by the likes of John A. McDougall and T. Colin Campbell, nutritional science experts vouched for by my wife, a health and wellness professional. If only I could watch every doc accompanied by a well-educated authority in its topic.
Sadly, even with her acceptance of the film's sound science, strictly from those experts, it's still very difficult to endorse "Got the Facts on Milk?" The very nature of Lane's filmmaking proficiency is questionable, and not solely due to the extremely irritable aspects I expected going in. For one thing, the over-used, excessively flashy and pseudo-hip graphics include misspellings of words like 'poached' and 'vitamin' and contain numerous grammatical and punctuation mistakes. Is it nit-picky to criticize this? I don't believe so, not when you're wanting to come across as a qualified source of intelligent investigation and information. The light and goofy style of this doc already kind of undermines the legitimately necessary content; the careless errors just totally wash away a viewer's trust in the filmmakers' overall competence and the film's distinction and value.
And when it's very likely the same subject will be covered in another documentary, especially in a time when food-related docs are immensely popular, the crude and cheaply produced precursor to them will easily fall into much-deserved obscurity (sometimes this is untrue, as I preferred earlier docs examining similar material to the overrated and pandering "Food Inc.," which I hate). As it turns out, one comparable yet broader film, titled "Forks Over Knives" (which I have not seen) also hits home video today and also features a number of the same experts, and it looks a lot more professional.
(another very lengthy, very early trailer)
Back to the format, though, because I need to stress how amateurish this sort of documentary is in general, regardless of what it has done for Josh Fox and some other individual documentarians with better focus and editing assistance. "Gasland" works because it is still first and foremost about the topic that Fox is innocently and inquisitively exploring. "Got the Facts on Milk?" remains a home movie of a cross-country field trip to the USDA, during which Lane and her young crew talked to some people -- equal parts expert and the complete opposite of such -- about milk. There is way too much footage of them walking around, eating meals (never mind that it's a food-related film or that the interviews with restaurant staff is condescending) and visiting entirely irrelevant spots (namely a UFO museum in Roswell) and addressing the filmmaking itself above the issues and educational materials that should be concentrated on.
Because in a way it seems to disregard its own subject's worth, I'd connect "Got the Facts on Milk?" less to other food-related docs and more to the seemingly dissimilar "Don't You Forget About Me," a doc meant to be about John Hughes yet ultimately about a van full of young filmmakers on a road trip to find him. I called that one "naive and embarrassing," and the same goes for this film. Also, I'd again say these films are not as self-serving as many docs, but they're still just too self-involved.
Am I sorry that I accepted this little-known doc for review? Not at all, and here's why: aside from what I learned from it, which I actually probably could have gotten mostly from a quick fact sheet (if not my wife, who learned little here that she hadn't already known), I also got to sacrifice my time for the benefit of my readers and all other doc fans out there. Given that I was curious and knowingly ignorant about the nutritional and political truth about the dairy industry and that this was the first film I'd come upon that might shed some light on the subject, I assume there are many others out there who will wonder if this is worth seeing. I now can tell you to skip it and wait for the next milk documentary, which should hopefully arrive to displace this one very soon.
"Got the Facts on Milk?" is now available on DVD.
Recommended If You Like: "King Corn"; "Don't You Forget About Me"; "Food Inc."