“We like to have it in the way that it was. So we can look back.” These words spoken by University of British Columbia’s Jesse Robbins sum up the frustrating but ultimately admirable efforts of the dairy farmers chronicled in Jan Haakan’s documentary “Milk Men: The Life and Times of Dairy Farmers”.
In her film, the director returns to the dairy farms where she spent the summers of her youth. She divides the time amongst four in the Pacific Northwest, varying in size from a few hundred cows to several thousand. She interviews the men and women whose families have run them for decades. As one of the younger farmers states, “The first generation starts the farm, the second generation builds the farm, and the third generation destroys the farm. I just don’t want to be part of the third generation.”
The film begins with sepia memories frozen as photographs but soon gives way to the current truth. As much as the dairy farmers wish to remain simple and pure, the instruments that rule their lives belie that desire. They are indebted to banks, made redundant by technology, and at risk to negative public sentiment of the entire industry. There seems to be a constant, crushing pressure not to falter. To keep pace or perish.
What really elevates the documentary is the light touch used by Haakan. With her psychology background, she is adept at allowing the subjects to reveal themselves without pressing too hard. The film never becomes heavy handed or tries to force drama. She also uses narration sparingly and trusts the imagery to speak volumes, such as the sight of a calf being carted away from its mother or another lying dead on the ground amongst the living. The cinematography, handled by Caleb Heymann & Susan Kucera is extremely impressive. Golden hour compositions and aerial photography floating over the sprawling bucolic scenery is juxtaposed with the muddy, harsh reality of life working on the farm. And the workers are shot in stark relief against the size of the cumbersome farms and equipment.
“Milk Men” is reminiscent of the two extraordinary Barabara Kopple documentaries about blue collar America (Harlan County USA and American Dream). But where the antagonists there were the strike breakers and crooked management, the only enemy here is the pressure on the farmers to not fail their parents and grandparents.