Arts & Culture

University student’s documentary short wins Oscar

Film follows Indian women fighting stigma around menstruation by distributing supplies

By
Arts and Culture Editor
Monday, February 25, 2019

The documentary, “Period. End of Sentence.” directed by Rayka Zehtabchi, opens dialogue around stigma of menstruation in Hapur district, India. It follows the installation of a low-cost sanitary pad manufacturing machine in the district, providing 600 pads per day.

In just twenty-five minutes, the student-produced Oscar-winning short documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” draws attention to a global problem — the lack of access to supplies for and education about menstruation.

“Period. End of Sentence” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject at the 91st Academy Awards yesterday. “I can’t believe a documentary about menstruation just won an Oscar!” director Rayka Zehtabchi said through tears as she took to the stage. Charlotte Silverman ’22 cheered from the balcony with the women of featured in the film who came to Los Angeles for the ceremony, while some of Silverman’s peers took the Dolby Theatre stage with Zehtabchi and their teacher to accept the award. To the women featured in the film, the director said that she “know(s) that you are empowering women all over the world to fight for menstrual equality.”

Silverman is an executive producer of the documentary, alongside several other students from her high school student group, which founded a non-profit called The Pad Project aimed at reducing the stigma women face for menstruation. Funds raised by the students catalyzed the creation of the documentary short, which was originally intended as an educational tool.

Set in the rural Hapur district of India, the film, with subtitles translating from Hindi to English, opens with a series of women young and old responding to the question: what is a period? “Period?” one asks, eliciting a chorus of giggles from the group of young women that surround her. “Say it!” a girl chants. In the next clip, a young woman responds through laughter, “I know what it is, but I feel embarrassed.” Older women answer more seriously, but with similar hesitation. “This is something only God knows. It’s bad blood which comes out,” one says.

The director asks a group of young men if they are familiar with the term “period.” They stare blankly, shaking their heads in disagreement as one responds, “like a class period?” When prompted with the word “menstruation,” the boys nod. “It’s a kind of illness, right?” one says. “It mostly affects ladies,” another adds.

This opening provides context for the film, revealing the persistent stigma toward menstruation in the Hapur district. As the documentary continues, it follows the women of the district as a low-cost sanitary pad manufacturing machine is installed in the village Kathikhera. For these women, the newfound technology to create thousands of sanitary products — previously unobtainable or considered a luxury by women in the area — brings about the chance to participate in a micro-economy by producing and then selling the pads, which cost about five cents each to make.

Both the machine’s installation and the documentary’s creation resulted from The Pad Project, which was created by students at the Oakwood School in Los Angeles. The seeds of the project were planted in 2013, when students and English teacher Berton, lead producer on the film, began to consider the stigma and challenges women face globally after she and some students visited a United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. Berton then introduced the discussion around stigma faced by women across the world to the school’s chapter of Girls Learn International.

Silverman joined the club within two weeks of arriving at Oakwood as a sophomore, when the club was “working on pad and tampon drives for women’s shelters and youth shelters” in the area, she said. After Berton’s visit to the UN, the group decided to focus their efforts around the work of Arunachalam Muruganantham, who invented a manual, user-friendly machine that produces sanitary products.

Partnering with Action India, a non-profit based in New Delhi, “We made it a goal to purchase that machine,” Silverman said. As the students fundraised through bake sales, a yoga-thon and Kickstarter campaigns, Action India selected “the area that was in the most demand, … (as well as) specific women who wanted it in their area and people that wanted to work on the machine.”

In the documentary, viewers witness women ripping pieces of cotton from a large roll and then blending the material before piling the softened cotton into rectangular molds. More women cut and align a covering for the cotton, while others paint adhesive onto each pad. While some women and girls in the film are encountering sanitary products for the first time, for others, this is simply the first time discussing sanitary products feels acceptable.

One of the strongest presences in the film is Sneha, a young woman who aspires to be on the Delhi police force. “We aren’t encouraged to work or become independent,” she says, emphasizing her wish to join the police force “to save (herself) from marriage.”

“We wanted the machine to produce pads that would reach girls in the area and surrounding areas,” Silverman said, noting that the team was aware that they could not simply send products and assume they were being helpful. “Our goal was to kind of really work to create a … (female-driven) micro-economy.” In the documentary, as Sneha works towards pursuing her career on the police force, she participates in the business. Silverman and her peers raised enough funds to provide initial wages to women working the pad machine, to allow the business time to get off the ground.

Now, despite challenges in finding a reliable source of electricity for the machine and combating lasting stigma, the women produce 600 pads per day, Silverman said, with their sights set on increasing production to 800. The pads are called “Fly Pads” — a name chosen because of the women’s hope that their products will help women soar toward their goals, the film explains.

Zehtabchi was a recent graduate of the University of Southern California film school when she was approached by Oakwood parents about joining students on the project. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Zehtabchi said she “was totally moved and wanted to jump in. … I felt like we were all on the same wavelength.”

After earning many accolades on the film festival circuit, “Period. End of Sentence.” was nominated for the Oscar for Best Documentary Short, alongside “End Game” co-executive produced by Jim Mittelberger ’78 P’13, as The Herald previous reported. The Oakwood students did not expect critical acclaim when they first imagined producing a video to raise awareness about the global problem. “The goal was to make a film as an educational tool to give people knowledge about this issue,” Silverman said.

The film was released on Netflix earlier this month and has since been shared by numerous public figures and reviewed by various media outlets. Silverman said both the film’s reception and the Oscar nomination have been “mind-blowing,” because “having so many people relate to it, or feel inspired by it, is incredibly empowering. … It makes me think that this is just the beginning of the project.”

Silverman and her peers, teacher and the filmmakers attended the Oscars Sunday, along with many of the women prominently featured in the film, including Sneha. “I never thought I would go to America. Even now I can’t fully process what’s happening. For me, the nomination itself is an award,” Sneha told BBC News, continuing, “It’s a dream that I’m dreaming with my eyes open.”

The Los Angeles Times reported that since the film’s completion, two more low-cost sanitary pad machines have been installed and about 40 other schools have reached out to Oakwood about partnering with The Pad Project. “We’re looking to make (a) global network of activists come together around this issue,” Silverman said. She and her peers visited India in March of last year to meet with the Action India team and the women of Kathikhera.

“It is like two full time jobs,” Silverman said about her continued involvement with the project while a student at Brown. The team remains in contact with Action India and hopes to reach more students in India and the United States as they raise funds to install more machines and raise awareness. “We’re talking about how to … keep this little revolution going,” she said.

A previous version of this article stated that Silverman went onstage to help accept the award, when in fact she remained in the audience. The Herald regrets the error.