Director of 'Period. End of Sentence.' on filming in India where menstruation taboo is "one of the greatest in the world"
Rayka Zehtabchi's film earns place on the Oscar documentary shortlist
Update: Period. End of Sentence earns Oscar nomination
Two years out of USC Film School, director Rayka Zehtabchi finds herself in the hunt for an Oscar nomination with her short film Period. End of Sentence. Zehtabchi traveled to India to document a taboo about menstruation that has the practical effect of driving many girls of an education. Once girls reach their period many drop out of school for lack of access to sanitary pads, and they experience an acute sense of shame and embarrassment about this fundamental aspect of their own physiology.
The director filmed telling scenes with girls in rural areas outside Delhi, asking them through a translator about menstruation. Many laughed nervously and one girl was completely tongue-tied with embarrassment.
"When we were shooting that [scene] that actually went on for another minute where she couldn't say anything and it was so painful to watch," Zehtabchi recalls. "Going there to India and to these villages and having conversations with hundreds of women, and men as well, and just bringing up the word "periods" -- every time it was something different but it was never an outward, confident conversation or understanding about what menstruation was."
"Too many girls cannot afford or access sanitary pads, which means that when they get their period, they have to turn to unhealthy alternatives like dirty rags, leaves, or ashes," notes The Pad Project, a nonprofit established by girls at the Oakwood School in Los Angeles, which enlisted Zehtabchi to make the film. "On top of their high risk of infection every time their period comes, they also have to miss school--and the more school they miss, the more likely it becomes that they will fall too far behind and have to drop out entirely."
Period. End of Sentence. reveals how that dynamic is being changed by a low-cost sanitary pad making machine, invented by a man named Arunachalam Muruganantham. The device "makes affordable, biodegradable pads from locally sourced materials," according to The Pad Project. The documentary shows women learning to operate the device, creating affordable and convenient pads that they can market through local stores.
"We went to India twice," Zehtabchi told the audience at the Nonfictionfilm.com Oscar Documentary Shortlist Roundtable. "The first time it was right as the machine was being installed in this village. The beginning of the film is really what we had shot on our first trip -- all this confusion about menstruation and not wanting to talk about it. And also the sense that something is coming, something is brewing, there's something in the air, this thing [invention] is about to arrive and change things."
Zehtabchi continued, "The second trip we went on, it was six months after the machine had been installed, and all of a sudden we see these women who are working on the machine, running around with pads in their hands in the village and really feeling empowered because a lot of these women had never worked in their lives before. A 60-year-old woman and this was the first job that she had."
Related video: Director Rayka Zehtabchi on her Oscar-shortlisted documentary Period. End of Sentence.
The economic benefit of the pad making machine has changed perceptions about menstruation, Zehtabchi told the roundtable.
"As the men sort of understood what was going on, saw the machine, saw the pads, there was more discussion around menstruation, they started accepting it," the director commented. "They weren't so resistant about it because they saw that their wives and their daughters were making money and that there was money being brought into the household. Money changes things."
The Oakwood School chapter of Girls Learn International (GLI) not only raised the money to fund the documentary project, but also bought the pad making machine for their sister school in Hapur, India, where Zehtabchi shot the film.
"When I came on board these high schools had already decided they wanted to make this film and the question was, what is this film going to be exactly? And how are we going to get money for it? So we did a Kickstarter campaign for it," Zehtabchi recalls. "The girls [at Oakwood] did yoga-thons and bake sales and all sorts of goofy little things to raise any penny that we could."
A number of celebrities have helped spread the word about the Pad Project campaign and the documentary. Actor Jack Black is among those who have made financial contributions to the effort.
"Jack Black, very generous donor, he was actually a friend of one of our producers and his mother's actually involved in a lot of women's causes and women's education," Zehtabchi said at the Nonfictionfilm.com roundtable. "He's been just a wonderful supporter. It's been really great because this topic is becoming a little bit more hip with younger people in the United States and around the world as well and it's garnered a lot of attention even from Hollywood as well."
Making the Oscar documentary shortlist -- one of only 10 films to accomplish that -- has helped raise awareness of The Pad Project. The organization continues to raise funds to buy additional pad making machines (which run $12,000 apiece) and to "Pay more teachers and activists on-the-ground who can educate local women about the machine and destigmatize periods."
The Pad Project's moto is a simple one: "A period should end a sentence, not a girl's education."
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.