'Period. End of Sentence' Filmmakers on Making a Movie About Menstruation

Courtesy of Netflix

"There's millions of stories about menstruation, and I just think that we need to hear women's voices and we need to learn about their experiences," says director Rayka Zehtabchi.

When cinematographer and editor Sam Davis received a call from producer Garrett Schiff asking him to recommend a woman director for a documentary about period shaming in India’s rural villages, Davis recommended his best friend and classmate from USC, Rayka Zehtabchi.

Together they flew to India, returned to the states, launched a nonprofit called The Pad Project, began dating and released the short documentary, Period. End of Sentence (not specifically in that order). This past weekend, they stood on the Dolby stage together to accept the award for best documentary short at the 91st Academy Awards. 

Prior to Sunday night, Davis and Zehtabchi talked to THR about their short and how storytelling can help break down the worldwide taboos around menstruation.

Please explain the taboo around menstruation and how it affects women today in India. 

Zehtabchi: We discovered once a girl starts to menstruate, it essentially means that a young woman has blossomed and now [can] become a target for sexual harassment and abuse. So the parents try to protect her by marrying her off. There's a lot of fear around menstruation. So, I can't even imagine that if you're afraid to talk about your period, the most natural thing that happens to women's bodies, I can't imagine what other things you would be afraid to do.

Davis: It starts with education, too. Most of the older women have no idea. We talked to a 70-year-old woman who never learned what her period is.

Sam, what was it like being a male filmmaker on this project that tells a very female story?

Davis: The message of this film needs to get through to men just as much as it needs to empower women. It should empower men to be accepting and informed. As a man, I know I never talked to my mom or my sister or anyone really, maybe Rayka, about periods before I started on this project.

Zehtabchi:  I do remember asking you to go buy me a pack of pads when we were at USC.

Davis: Well, I actually had a cashier wrap it in a black plastic bag and then put it in a box. Just kidding — that's what they do in the villages [in India], so that girls can carry it through the village without being noticed. Which is supposed to be a courtesy, but really it's a great illustration of the problem.

What were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome in making this film?

Zehtabchi: We were able to connect with Guneet Monga's company Sikhya Entertainment. Guneet connected us with an incredible Indian producer based in Delhi, Mandakini Kakar. And Mandy sourced all of the local crew. I mean, the obstacle is you're shooting in a foreign country where you are now interviewing people about a topic that is so culturally sensitive that a lot of the subjects hadn't even spoken to the closest people in their lives about it.

What were those first interviews like? How long did you have to sit?

Zehtabchi: In silence?

Davis: You kind of get the feeling of the first interviews in the first few minutes of the film.

Zehtabchi: There's this one [girl] in the first 30 seconds of the film where Mandy, the interviewer, asks, "Why did you get so serious?" That [moment] was literally right after [Mandy] said, "Do you know what a period is?" And I think Sam was very patient. We had the camera on her for like easily 30 minutes.

What was the on-the-ground response to your project?

Zehtabchi: Logistically speaking, the second we would drive up to the villages in our production van, we would have people flocking to us. I remember we had one situation where there was a villager, he was a belligerent drunk one day, and he had heard that we were coming to film. He didn't like what we were doing. He [would] shout and try to round everyone up to kick us out. So we had to leave, and we didn't return until he was gone.

What else ended up helping you in developing the story?

Zehtabchi: I was definitely shocked that I felt so uncomfortable being a woman there. We would have to leave the villages right as the sun was going down. We had us a wonderful sound guy. His name was Sunil Kumar, and he was local. I remember one day, we wanted to get some B-roll as the sun was going down, and I was about to go. Sunil just looked at me and said, "You stay here." I didn't understand why I couldn't come, but he was like, "No, no, no, not safe. Stay." So I had to sit in the house and wait for Sam and Sunil while they shot B-roll.

In your film, you were able to demonstrate that women do have some opportunity to make a better life for themselves in India through one of your subjects, Sneha. Can you talk about Sneha?

Zehtabchi: Sneha stood out to us right from the very beginning. The first time we met her, she was wearing tennis shoes and track pants. She even commented in one of the interviews that people had made fun of her her whole life because she didn't dress in traditional feminine Indian garb. Although, I will add that when we started talking to Sneha about menstruation, she was closed off. Even as strong a personality as she was. By the second time we came back to India, six months after the pad machine had been installed, we saw a completely transformed Sneha. At that point she was already working full-time on the pad machine, earning wages and putting those wages toward her schooling for the police force. She just pulled me and Sam into the pad machine room, the first day [we returned] and showed us how to make pads. It was pretty crazy to see that even Sneha, who was one of our strongest characters, was still struggling with the concept of menstruation early on.

Did being in a relationship affect your filmmaking?

Zehtabchi: We weren't even together the first trip [to India].

Davis: So, the very first day in the village, the village women dressed Rayka in a wedding sari. And all these unmarried, Indian men were—

Zehtabchi: Lining up.

Davis: A couple of the girls were definitely interested in Rayka marrying their brothers.

Zehtabchi: I think that forced Sam to jump into action.

How have your lives changed since Period. End of Sentence has received the attention it has?

Zehtabchi: Well, there's been a lot of press. And, we released the film on Netflix. All of a sudden you wake up one morning and see that literally an entire country, with a billion people, are backing your short film. It seems India is so hungry for these conversations.

Davis: We learned that we want to make more documentaries together. I mean what cooler thing to do with your filmmaker girlfriend than travel the world, making films where you know you're causing an actual, tangible shift for the better in the world.

Zehtabchi: There's millions of stories about menstruation, and I just think that we need to hear women's voices and we need to learn about their experiences. That's the only way we're going to get rid of this taboo worldwide.