February 16, 2019

'Period. End of Sentence': Transforming a Taboo into a Cause

From Rayka Zehtabchi's "Period. End of Sentence." Courtesy of Netflix

If you are an urban Indian woman, chances are that you’ve been asked at some point to desist from touching or staining or entering spaces while on your period. Temples and other religious sites are off limits. In certain homes, so are kitchens. This is such a normalized phenomenon, that most Indian women will not blink at it. When buying pads at the local store, chances are that the owner has wrapped the pack in newspaper so your period will remain private, not to be carried or seen out in the open. In Bengal, even today, albeit under protest by feminists, the term “shorir kharap,” or sickness, is colloquial phrasing for menstruation. In the Indian rural context, a period may be considered a curse or the onset of shame, to be covered up at all costs, rendering a woman unclean. And while times are changing and Indian women are in open and often defiant celebration of their bodies, the conversation in villages and smaller towns has only just begun.

A new documentary by Rayka Zehtabchi, Period. End of Sentence, has been nominated for an Oscar this year, in the shorts category. Zehtabchi, 25, is of Iranian-American descent, raised in Southern California. The film follows a group of women in rural Hapur district, outside of Delhi, India, as they transition from crippling shame at their own menstrual cycles to creating the beginnings of a microeconomy, based on a low-cost sanitary napkin machine. Arunachalam Muruganantham, an entrepreneur from Tamil Nadu, famously created the pad machine to spare his wife the trauma of having to reuse unhygienic rags for her period. This is not the stuff of rom-coms, however—Shanti was displeased at her pioneering husband’s interest in her or anyone else’s period, and the couple fought vigorously over his desire to have her experiment with pads. In her experience, men were excluded from any conversation around the gynecological properties of women’s bodies. Anything else invited unwelcome attention.

Prior to Zehtabchi’s team entering their lives, the women of Hapur had little idea what pads were, and certainly did not have the resources to afford them. For Zehtabchi, this was a sea-change in perspective. “We have entire aisles for pads and tampons when we go to stores,” she observes. “We don’t think about it because it is at our disposal. When I went to India, we heard about [rural] women using rags and leaves and even ashes to deal with their period. They were dropping out of schools, hiding from society, seriously hindered by this. It was a huge cultural difference.” 

In 2013, a group of female students at Oakwood, a North Hollywood private school, found themselves in a unique position. One of them, Helen Yenser, had visited a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women that focused on the impact of taboos around menstruation on women in countries such as Afghanistan, India and Nigeria. Girls in these chapter schools were dropping out because of their lack of access to feminine hygiene products and the trauma that ensued as a result. When Yenser and her mother, Melissa Berton (a high school English teacher at Oakwood and, like Yenser and the other Oakwood students, a producer on the project), returned from the trip, they wanted to raise funds for pad machines. Berton also suggested that the team make a documentary. Says Yenser, “People in the activist world wondered why we would pour money into a film instead of the machine. We could make a film and have one machine or instead, have three or four machines. My mom had the foresight to see that if we made a good film, we might raise money for eight machines.”

Producer Garret Schiff is father to Ruby Schiff, one of the Oakwood students involved in the pad project (both Schiffs are producers on the film). During their time as film students at USC, Zehtabchi and her boyfriend and creative partner, Sam Davis (editor and cinematographer on the film), had worked with Garret Schiff on a project. Soon after Rayka’s graduation, Schiff called her to pitch the documentary. “I didn’t hesitate,” says Zehtabchi. “My first official Pad Project meeting for the film was walking into a room of high school girls who were going to be my executive producers. It was a really cool experience because I’m a young female filmmaker and I felt very connected to the girls and their journey of activist work.”

In the first few minutes of Period. End of Sentence, two pre-teen girls from Hapur melt into giggles of embarrassment at having to discuss their period. The older women exhibit quiet rage at having to live lives of seclusion, away from a pervasive male gaze, because of their period.  Zehtabchi’s oldest female subject, at least 60, calls it dirty blood and a mysterious illness. Then, Zehtabchi captures the arrival of the pad machine in Hapur. The women are equal parts terrified and eager—the men have been told that it is a machine that makes diapers for children. Once trained, the women make enough pads for personal use as well as commercial sale, quickly evolving into a small business. This is no small impact, onscreen or in its message. “It was crazy that we saw a real-time transition and shift,” Zehtabchi remarks. “I would never have expected that we would come back to India, six months after my first trip, and see that the women had made about 18,000 pads that they were trying to package and market. They were whispering about the pads to their aunts and sisters and friends. That was when they started to open up. I think the presence of the pad machine and our efforts at opening up the conversation reassured them that it was okay to talk about periods.”

Filmmaker Rayka ZehtabchiThe Oakwood girls and Zehtabchi say that they were aware that they were making a film about a foreign culture, from what may be a position of privilege. Zehtabchi observes, “We were filming people telling us things that they don’t want to be talking about, so we were always trying to not be invasive, especially with the camera. And in the edit. For example, we walked into a co-ed classroom, unannounced, in India. The teacher asked the 15-year-old students if anyone could tell her what menstruation was. And there’s a shot in the film of a young girl who’s called upon, and she stands up completely petrified. In the film, there is about 30 seconds where she literally cannot say a word. In real life we got about three minutes of footage of her where it seemed like she was going to faint. It was so hard to watch and realize that the shame was so painful. In the edit, part of you wants to indulge in the drama of it and continue that shot for as long as you can. And then you realize what it is to be respectful and sensitive and not exploit them.” Echoes Yenser, “I never wanted it to be a film that said, ‘Look at these poor women, at this backward village.’The United States also has issues with menstruation and stigma around it. When we added pads and tampons to low-income schools in New York, attendance went up. When I saw the film, it was a relief.”

Yenser, currently a screenwriting student at USC, describes an incident in one of her MFA classes. "As part of an introduction, we were asked to name an interesting extra-curricular that we did,” she recounts. “I said, ‘My name is Helen and my extracurricular is this documentary about periods.’ The reaction I essentially got was, ‘That's so weird.’ I was asked to have a better lead-in to that because there were guys in this classroom who may not be comfortable with me talking about my period. It reminded me that I had been advertising this film for seven years and I forget that some people may not be as comfortable.”

Period. End of Sentence is visually rich, with the shawls and tapestries and faces of wintertime in Hapur. This is Zehtabchi’s first documentary, a medium in which making cinematic choices while trying to capture moments of truth before they are lost is notoriously challenging. “My background and training is in narrative storytelling with tight story structure and character arcs,” she explains. “When I came to this potential documentary idea, I knew that I wanted a beautiful film that took audiences on a journey with these characters, rather than a straight journalistic treatment.” Zehtabchi speaks no Hindi, the language of the film. Both she and Berton testify to the enormous aid extended to them by Action India, a grassroots feminist organization in India, for the three years that it took to get the requisite permissions for filming. For Zehtabchi in particular, the value of a local producer and translator—in this case, Mandakini Kakar—was invaluable. “Mandy would conduct interviews and break every ten minutes to give us a quick summary,”Zehtabchi recalls. “We would pivot based on those responses. I would have detailed conversations with her and map out an outline of all the points that I wanted to hit in the film or topics I wanted to dig deeper into.”

Zehtabchi and Kakar, after dozens of interviews, secured subjects whose anger and strength shine through the film. Central to the narrative is Sneha, an aspiring police officer, who would like to be saved from the prospect of marriage, and like the other women, remains fearful of the reactions that the film might get, especially from the men in their lives. This fear was dispelled only after a joyous first screening. “It was hard enough to film in a foreign country, but harder to film a painfully taboo topic, in a village,” Zehtabchi observes. “We were often surrounded by a crowd, mostly men, obviously interested in what we were doing. It was important to protect the women and yet navigate this intimate topic. Mandakini was a wonderful producer, and that was key because we were making such a low-budget film and didn’t have much time to film in the villages. For me, after a certain period of time and spending time with the women and talking to them through Mandy, things began to fall into place. I could put myself in their shoes—times in my life where I’ve been afraid of something and it’s held me back. It was heartbreaking to see that the thing that was holding them back is really the thing that gives them strength and should be empowering them.”

Zehtabchi and Davis returned to Los Angeles to edit their film in true low-budget style—in their apartment. This was a period of collaboration with the Oakwood students and Berton, who watched cuts and provided feedback, both positive and dissenting. For a final version, another Oakwood parent came on board, editor Doug Blush, who is also credited as an executive producer on the film. (Another Oakwood parent and producer on the film is prominent publicist and Oscar campaign strategist Lisa Taback.) Berton describes the film’s journey as “kismet-y”: “Everybody was inspired by her or his daughter. Gary Schiff came on because he was moved by his daughter; Lisa Taback, by her daughter; Guneet Monga [the acclaimed Indian producer], by Stacey Sher’s daughter. I think it’s been the students’ bravery and their willingness to be front-and-center about a topic that’s still touchy in the United States. Here were a bunch of high school students saying that girls and women should be free to talk about their period. I think they were so irresistible that their parents came on board to help. One of the parents was our accountant.”

The film is a beginning of a universal, extended conversation that one hopes that Zehtabchi and the Oakwood students will utilize their reach and access to continue, both in the rural and urban context, across countries. The Oscars are a leap towards some of that awareness, and the girls of Oakwood, the women of Hapur and Zehtabchi will attend with their team. Notes Yenser, “It’s like Suman says in the film: ‘Everything in the patriarchy takes time.’ I’ve always loved that line because I feel like the same thing can be said of the United States, or really any society.”

 

Period. End of Sentence will screen as part of IDA’s DocuDay, a daylong showcase of the Academy Award-nominated documentaries, taking place at the Writers Guild of America theater in Beverly Hills.

Nayantara Roy is a writer and producer based in Los Angeles. During the day, she works in unscripted development at AGBO Films.

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