Milk Men

Of films and farms

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

I first met documentary filmmaker Janice Haaken several months ago at a screening of a rough cut of her latest effort, Milk Men, at the PFC’s Limelight Cinema. The showing brought together those involved in the movie—which documents the challenges and day-to-day lives of commercial dairy farmers, both in this area and beyond—from people who provided financial support to crew members to the dairy farmers themselves.

Haaken went to considerable lengths to capture her subjects (at one point even strapping a GoPro to the head of one of her bovine stars in order to capture a cow’s-eye view), balancing personal stories with universal experiences. I quickly learned that her ardent advocacy is not limited solely to this topic, but is a hallmark of her all her films, Milk Men being the latest in Haaken’s ongoing effort to tell meaningful stories via film, an effort that has seen her make five feature-length documentaries prior to this one.

Since that first meeting, Haaken has been hard at work carefully crafting what was already a pretty polished rough cut into the form it is today. The public will have a chance to view her labor of love—and learn more about the dairy industry, including some of the farmers in our own backyard—at sneak-preview screenings of Milk Men that take place Oct. 30 and 31 at the Pickford Film Center. Haaken will be on hand at the showings to answer whatever questions the audience may have for her, but first she sat down and answered a few of mine.

Cascadia Weekly: This is not your first foray into documentary filmmaking, but it does seem a bit removed from your previous subject matter. What drew you to dairy farmers and the dairy industry, and what made you realize there was a story to be told here?

Janice Haaken: In terms of my background professionally as a filmmaker, I am professor emeritus of psychology at Portland State University and have a long history of field research and documentary films focused on stressful jobs, particularly jobs carried out in places that have become the focus of public controversy and confusion. I have carried out projects in refugee camps, war zones, centers for asylum seekers, psychiatric hospitals, VA clinics, hip-hop clubs and drag bars. These are all places where people are dealing with complex and challenging human issues, and I’m interested in how people in such settings can provide insights on what is going on. I try to find bridges between the unique features of a locale and the people that inhabit it and the larger world beyond its borders. As a psychologist and filmmaker, I also try to help audiences understand images that might be disturbing or confusing. I really avoid sensationalized or overly dramatic imagery (including in war zones) and instead try to capture more of the drama of everyday life in these settings.

I became very curious about what was going on with dairy farms since many of my students (at Portland State, where I taught for 34 years) expressed deep moral concern about dairy farming—and most of their information was coming from highly sensationalized or over-simplified online sources. So as an academic as well as a filmmaker, I thought I could contribute to a more thoughtful and complex look at what is going on with some of these farms as they deal with intense economic and technological pressures… Many of the progressive documentaries on dairy farmers tend to over-idealize the small farmer, with his handful of cows, and do not really address the dilemmas of commercial dairy farmers, The more I learned about surviving dairies, the more I became there was an important story to be told from their point of view about modernity itself.

CW: Your documentary focuses on a variety of dairy operations. How’d you come to choose farms in Whatcom and Skagit counties? What are your ties to this area?

JH: Part of my motivation for making Milk Men was in using the medium of film to help bridge the deep cultural divides in this country as well between urban and rural people. There are crude stereotypes on both sides. (In my extended family, we were the “city slickers” and they were “country hicks.”) I have deep family roots in the Whatcom and Skagit areas. My grandparents, John and Ragla Hawkinson, settled in Whatcom County as immigrants from Norway. My mother’s parents, Sigrid and Gunhard Gunderson, were also Norwegian immigrants who settled in Whatcom County. Many of my relatives from both sides of the family are still in the Whatcom area, as well as in the Skagit Valley. My parents moved to Seattle where my dad worked in fisheries and then for the airlines, but we spent most summers and holidays up in the Skagit and Whatcom areas. I remember my Uncle Chap and Aunt Annie (Dykers)—dairy farmers in Mount Vernon—because they were one of the hubs for family gatherings.

Milk Men uses the storytelling device of the personal journey—in this case the journey of returning to a place in childhood to understand how things have changed. (Where have all of those small dairy farms gone, and what is it like for the survivors?) But this personal history was also the basis of engaging local dairy producers in the project. The first producer that I approached—Alan Mesman—knew my Uncle Chap. His dad and my uncle had farmed together in Mount Vernon. I also asked relatives in the area about farmers they knew and respected and then visited them to see if they might be interested in being part of a documentary film project. I ended up selecting four families that captured some of the diversity in size of farms and different personality characteristics. The participants saw work samples at different phases of the project and stayed with me in part because they believed in the importance of community education about farming.

CW: What drives you to make documentaries, and what’s next for you as a filmmaker?

JH: A big part of the joy of making documentaries is in using the medium of film to stimulate dialogue on issues that people care passionately about. The challenge—as a filmmaker and psychologist—is to help people to be able to listen to each in the midst of intense emotions, particularly where whole ways of life are at stake.

Milk Men is my sixth feature-length documentary film. My most recent films are Guilty Except for Insanity (focused on patients and staff at the Oregon State Hospital and their explanations for how people get in and out of that facility) and Mind Zone—a film focused on combat stress control in the U.S. military. Most of my films end up in school settings and are screened at conferences and university events. Some have been distributed on television and online platforms. Milk Men is being submitted to festivals and under review by several distributors. I am currently working with the University of Michigan Ann Arbor on a new documentary about women’s health care in East Africa, expected to begin in January.

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