As a teenage girl growing up in Southern California, Rayka Zehtabchi appreciated that her father brought home chocolate whenever she and her sister got their periods. But she never understood how lucky she was, she says, until more than a decade later, when she traveled to India to make a film about menstruation.
In a village 60 kilometers from New Delhi, Zehtabchi met elders who tell women not to pray while they’re bleeding and young men who think menstruation is an illness.
She captured their misconceptions on camera, and now she’s nominated for an Academy Award.
“Period. End of Sentence.” is one of five films up for best documentary short on Sunday. Zehtabchi is just 25 years old, a recent University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts graduate who has directed only three other films. But if she sounds like a relative newcomer to the film industry, you should see the rest of the “Period” Oscar attendees, which will include six college sophomores wearing Rent the Runway dresses and about half a dozen women from rural India, some of whom are traveling to the U.S. for the first time.
“This has been an incredible first experience for me as a documentary filmmaker,” Zehtabchi said, speaking by phone from California less than a week before the Academy Awards. “It was like, just an amazing opportunity to make a film that has this incredible movement and social justice campaign behind it.”
“Period. End of Sentence.” taps into the global tide of growing concern about menstrual equity. In the United States, the movement includes increasing access to sanitary products, promoting open conversations about menstruation and lobbying against sales taxes on tampons. In the developing world, menstrual equity means allowing menstruating women to worship, buy basic sanitary products and go to school.
Almost a third of Indian girls miss school during their periods. Claire Sliney, a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, came across similar statistics when she visited the United Nations on a high school spring break trip in 2013. As delegates to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, Sliney and five classmates learned all sorts of sobering facts, but it was girls dropping out of school that stuck with them, she said, and conjured up a traumatic memory for Sliney.
“I was in fifth grade when I got my period,” Sliney recalled. “I didn’t even know what was happening.”
Sliney was 11; even her mom had been caught off guard. She took her daughter into school late and had a conversation with the female teacher before sending her daughter into the classroom, carrying a purse when no one else needed one.
But at least she was able to return to school.
As a high school sophomore back at Oakwood School, an elite private academy in Los Angeles, Sliney and her friends kept talking about what they learned on their United Nations trip and what they could do to help women without access to sanitary products. They brainstormed at lunch and hung out on weekends, and were soon holding vegan bake sales and yogathons to raise money. Their goal was to purchase a so-called “pad machine,” a mini factory created by an Indian inventor that allows women to make their own pads and turn a profit by selling them for roughly 5 cents apiece.
But they wanted to document the project.
“At first we were like, ‘Let’s just take some student filmmakers from our school and do a PSA about the issue,’” Sliney said.
And that’s when they decided it was time to ask their parents — many of whom worked in the film industry — for some guidance.
It was Garrett Schiff, another parent who works as a Hollywood writer and producer, who had seen one of Zehtabchi’s short narrative films and suggested she would be a good fit to work with the Oakwood students. He called her out of the blue. The young director was heading to Ireland to visit relatives, and had a whole transatlantic flight to think about whether she wanted to helm her first documentary.
She flew to India twice in 2017, both times with her boyfriend and artistic collaborator, Sam Davis. Working with translators and grassroots activists, they interviewed residents of Kathikhera, a village in northern India, starting with basic questions about menstruation. The giggles, blank stares and religious platitudes they heard in response open the film.
“This is something only God knows,” says one female village elder, smiling warmly.
Although Zehtabchi’s original charge had been to document the menstruating girls dropping out of school, her 40 hours of footage — edited down to a riveting 25 minutes — document a situation that’s more complex, and in many ways, much worse. Adult women scavenging for cloth to use instead of pads. Male shopkeepers not interested in selling sanitary products. Temples that ban menstruating women from worshipping.
And yet, just when the depressing obstacles to basic women’s health start piling up, Zehtabchi introduces Jackie and Ruby, two adorable dogs who roam the village dump trying to eat bloody used pads. Somehow, the director manages to keep the tone of the entire film hopeful, with twists of subversive humor. She documented the unveiling of the pad machine bought by the Oakwood students, and her collaborator, Davis, held a camera as the village women learned how to prepare raw fibrous material, punch out the pads and apply adhesive.
When Zehtabchi returned to the village six months later, the women had made more than 18,000 pads.
Then they had to sell them.
Sneha, a twenty-something woman paying her way through police training school emerges as an unlikely heroine, health educator and salesperson. Going door-to-door with boxes of the newly made “Fly” pads, she often finds her knocks ignored, but finally one woman throws down rupees from her balcony.
Sneha turns to the camera and smiles, “Money in pocket,” she says.
Two years later, Sneha has sold thousands of pads. She’s on the cusp of becoming a Delhi police officer, and she’s going to the Academy Awards. Also invited to the ceremony Sunday: a women’s health activist who’s shown in the documentary leading a workshop where she dunks a pad machine’s product into a pan of water, and it doesn’t drip. It’s like a live commercial, and it works. Soon every woman in the room is eagerly paying up.
In the weeks leading up to the Academy Awards, buzz has been building for “Period. End of Sentence.” Although Sliney’s mom, Lisa Taback, works for Netflix as an awards strategist, she’s insisted that she “hasn’t pulled any levers,” to promote the film she helped her daughter produce. Word is getting out, and it’s getting help from the American menstrual equity community.
Margo Seibert, a Broadway actress and activist who co-founded the advocacy group Racket: Periods Without Shame, heard about the film through a one of her volunteers. Julia Murney, a recent star of the musical “Wicked” message Seibert to say, “You’ve got to watch this movie,” which Seibert promptly did.
“I found it to be incredibly uplifting and also very emotional. The reason for that is that I was watching something that is so simple — a simple product, a sanitary pad — be the key to empowering women, and not just women, but this whole community.”
Seibert was glad to see the film also involving men — she’s already seen a separate documentary about the Pad Man, the Indian inventor who created the pad machine— and laughed when the film shows some of them same bashful men from the beginning of the film attempt to make pads themselves at the end.
As someone who coordinates an annual drive where casts of Broadway shows collect tampons for women’s shelters, prisons and other marginalized groups of women, Seibert knows there’s still lots of work on menstrual equity to be done in the United States. An Oscar-nominated film about making pads in India can add to the effort.
“It’s about eradicating shame and being able to talk about menstruation,” Seibert said. “Anything that draws light to the subject matter is important.”
And, ideally, where will people be talking about menstruation on Sunday?
“On the red carpet,” Seibert said. “I love that.”