Rayka Zehtabchi was on her way to Europe to see her family when she received a call at the airport from Garrett Schiff, a film industry vet with a job proposal with unusual origins. He was calling as a professional, but the project was personal as an alum of Oakwood, a private high school in Los Angeles, where a group of young women, under the guidance of their English teacher Melissa Berton, had taken the initiative to start The Pad Project, a non-profit aiming to provide tampons to women in India where menstruation is still largely considered a taboo. Even though Zehtabchi, then a recent USC film school graduate on a narrative career track, instantly sparked to the idea, she knew it was a commitment she couldn’t make lightly, so she asked for time to consider it.
“He told me about this issue of women and girls who have to drop out of school because of lack of access to sanitary pads and I actually had no idea that this was actually a worldwide issue, so my phone call with Garrett really stuck with me throughout the flight,” Zehtabchi recalled. “When I landed in Ireland, I sent him an e-mail saying, ‘I’m on board. Let’s do this.’”
Zehtabchi might’ve been brought on board with plans to make a film about the effort behind the Pad Project, but she is able to tell their story through seeing the inspiring results of their handiwork in “Period. End of Sentence,” which was recently shortlisted by the Academy as one of the finalists for the Best Documentary Short at this year’s Oscars. With her filmmaking partner Sam Davis, she traveled to the village of Khaikhera where many women are unfamiliar with sanitary pads, let alone use them. However, there’s been a breakthrough in another part of the country as Arunachalam Muruganantham developed an easily operable machine that could crank out sanitary pads cheaply and quickly, giving women in the most rural areas a sustainable source of pads.
Although the Pad Project isn’t mentioned until the end of “Period. End of Sentence,” there is considerable power in knowing that a group of teenagers in Los Angeles were discovering how powerful they were in parallel to the women in Khaikhera, who mobilize and start raking in rupees by starting a business called Fly that distributes pads throughout the region. While the story is compelling enough, Zehtabchi conveys the joy of discovery amongst the female villagers as they start making the pads and take control of their own destiny, particularly Shena, who sees her work with Fly as a stepping stone to a previously unthinkable career in law enforcement in the city. The misogyny that has deprived the women of such a basic health care need in the first place may be infuriating, but the 25-minute short takes its cues from its vivacious subjects, drawing upon the passion they have with a newfound sense of purpose and surprised and delighted with what they are able to achieve while men in the village are either completely unaware or pretend they are.
That energy has been infectious, turning “Period. End of Sentence” into a festival favorite ever since debuting at the Cleveland Film Festival in April, beginning a streak of Best Documentary prizes that carried on to AFI Docs, Savannah Film Festival and Traverse City Film Festival. Now, as the film is potentially up for an Oscar, Zehtabchi spoke about how the film took shape following the Oakwood students raising $45,000 on Kickstarter to back a film and buy a pad machine for the women of Khaikhera, making her first nonfiction film and having to occasionally film covertly.
With a story like this, there were plenty of angles to come from. How did you wind up structuring it around this one village of Khaikhera?
It really became clear when I went to the villages. Before going to India, there was this idea of making a totally different film about the group of high school girls in Los Angeles who are starting this whole movement and working with a group of women in India [and] help start this sanitary pad business. Melissa Berton, [a teacher at the school and] another producer on the film, got all the high school girls involved in this whole mission and got us communicating with Mr. Murugananthan, the inventor of the pad machine. When I came onboard, all of the groundwork had been laid as far as communication with the organization in India and the village itself, and when I went to India with Sam Davis, the [cinematographer], editor and co-producer of the film to start shooting, the machine [had been] installed and it became a very clear that the focus and the center of the story was specifically the women in this one village because it was so powerful to see how much this one machine was affecting all the people [there] and how incredibly taboo menstruation was in this part of the world.
Some men appear to genuinely not know what the women are up to, but you see others who pretend not to know – did you have to be slightly covert in what you were doing?
Yeah, the men for the most part didn’t know what was going on and then there were some men knew what was going on, but I think had maybe too much pride or didn’t want to reveal that they knew because then it would seem like they were supporting it. So we did have to be covert in a lot of ways and logistically speaking, we would have to be strategic about the way that we would enter the villages — in the back way in a van and we’d have to run out and throw a piece of cloth over the camera or ourselves just so we wouldn’t be seen and hide in someone’s home until we were sure there wasn’t going to be a crowd of people around us. Then as far as speaking to our subjects about a topic that is so shameful and painful for so many people, it was a lot of trust-building and figuring out little ways that we could get some of these people to open up. The best part about it is getting a lot of those reactions where people are either confused or silent and not wanting to open up and [then] discuss the topic. We had a lot of that before the first time we went to India before the machine was installed, but when we went back and the machine had been installed, it was remarkable to see the shift in people’s behaviors toward menstruation.
Since the film seems to coalesce around Sneha, how did she stand out as someone to follow?
We were really impressed with Sneha because she seemed like an outlier in the village. She’s very adamant about just being independent, not getting married and focusing on her career [goal] of becoming a police officer in Delhi. That was really remarkable to us because no other woman in her village had set that dream, and Sneha was also one of the women who started working on the pad machine, so this pad machine and the opportunity for her to work and to earn wages really helped her blossom and become more and more independent. She was able to fund her training for the Delhi police through the wages that she earned, so her life was being affected because of this machine [directly].
I enjoyed the film from the start, but I fell in love when you introduced Rekha’s dogs Ruby and Jackie the same way you would any of the other main characters, it’s part of a playful tone you get. When this is such a serious subject, did you know that could be there from the start?
Yeah, we saw a lot of the playfulness coming from the subjects themselves. There is a lot of shame associated with menstruation and it could be a very heavy subject, but as a filmmaking choice, it was really important for us to make a film that would be uplifting and empowering. One of our producers describes it as a “throw your fists in the air” kind of film and that was the point. We were able to capitalize on some of the humor that our subjects would bring to us and create a film that would be entertaining and fun and funny rather than something that could potentially be a downer.
There’s a beautiful shot at the end of the film that I wouldn’t want to spoil, but it’s a very nice summation of what’s come before. Did you feel working in narrative helped on your first nonfiction film?
The most important thing that I promised myself [was that] I wouldn’t manipulate the film in any way — that’s composing certain shots or in editing patching things together that didn’t really happen the way that they did. And I’m proud to say that almost a hundred percent of the film is exactly how we captured it as far as our subjects and what they delivered to us. But it was really fun and interesting to think how we could think about different scenes and moments that I knew would eventually make it into the film. If we’re getting some sort of B-roll, [I would say] “Okay, I have a general idea of how I would like to close the film, so let’s shoot this B-roll at this certain time of the day.” It was really cool to be able to do that visually.
What’s it been like bringing this out into the world?
We’re just so grateful for how it’s being received and it’s been a really wonderful experience. I think people are actually really open to the topic and are hungry to have discussions about something like this, so every time we screen the film anywhere, whether it’s in the middle of America, Los Angeles or internationally, it’s always been a wonderful conversation starter and we have a lot of interest from schools and universities and organizations that would love to eventually screen the film. That was the goal of the whole project in the first place — let’s start conversations about periods.