AFI Docs Short Film About Indian Girls Brings Potent Hollywood Pedigree

Courtesy of AFI

Stars from Sara Gilbert to Kiefer Sutherland took to social media to promote 'Period. End of Sentence.' which scored funding from the likes of Jack Black and has veteran Oscar strategist Lisa Taback behind the scenes, as the film was produced by her daughter and classmates from her L.A. school.

Washington, D.C.’s annual AFI Docs Film Festival is both a harbinger of socio-political shifts and a generator of awards buzz. Last year’s opening film, Icarus, went on to win the 2018 Oscar for best documentary feature.

This year’s festival, the 16th, took place June 13-17, showcasing 92 films representing 22 countries, all screened at iconic locations in and around D.C., including the new Oprah Winfrey Theater at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and the AFI Silver Theatre and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, MD. And in a year when the festival committed itself to showcasing a diversity of voices and perspectives (almost half the entries were directed by women), the documentary short Period. End of Sentence. offered both a glimpse into a cultural taboo that might seem unfathomable to American audiences and a heartwarming promise of change.

The film — created by The Pad Project, an organization established by an inspired group of students at the Oakwood School in Los Angeles and their teacher, Melissa Berton — comes with an earnest mission and a potent Hollywood pedigree to power awareness. As part of their school’s chapter of Girls Learn International, Oakwood students began to notice that girls in their sister schools in developing countries were dropping out once they reached puberty. The Oakwood students reached out to Iranian-American filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi to help them spread the word about their initiative and encourage others to join the effort.

A crew of stars took to social media to help promote the project — including Sara Gilbert, Kiefer Sutherland, Jessica Simpson and Sarah Paulson — and Jack Black was among the film’s earliest donors (the film was funded entirely through Kickstarter campaigns and bake sales). The production team includes veteran Oscar strategist Lisa Taback of consulting firm LTLA, and Taback’s daughter, Claire Sliney, a student at the University of Pennsylvania who was among the founding members of Oakwood’s GLI.

The 26-minute film opens in Hapur, India, a rural community outside Delhi. Teenage girls who are asked if they know what menstruation is giggle awkwardly or cover their faces, looking away or staring uncomfortably at the camera. A quartet of older boys responds to the same question with seat-shifting silence, regarding one another with confusion before one offers that he thinks menstruation is a kind of illness that affects certain women. Among a group of adult women, a grandmotherly figure tells the filmmakers that the reason for menstruation is “something only God knows, the dirty blood that comes out.” Another woman explains that women aren’t allowed to pray while they are bleeding — and that if they did, the gods wouldn’t listen anyway.

The shame surrounding the subject is matched only by an overwhelming ignorance of a basic human bodily function that nearly every American girl understands by the time she’s in fifth grade. The audience is confronted by alarming statistics: Only 10 percent of women in India have access to affordable sanitary supplies, while the majority of the population uses old rags, leaves or even ashes to manage their periods. Because of lack of information and access to pads or tampons, it’s estimated that one quarter to more than one half of girls drop out of school once they start menstruating — severely limiting their lifestyle and career options and relegating them to lives as child brides, unable to earn wages or live independently. Viewers are told that if just 1 percent more girls were to continue their education through secondary school, the country of India would increase its GDP by $5.5 billion — and it would significantly reduce the country’s overpopulation problems.

Enter renegade entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham, known affectionately as The Pad Man. Muruganantham invents an easy-to-operate machine that makes low-cost sanitary napkins using supplies that are readily available in India. Muruganantham brings his machines to these small towns, helping train women to operate them and in turn sell the supplies at very affordable prices to other women in their area. The women retain the profits of their labor, effectively creating a sustainable women-run microbusiness that protects both their health and their community’s economic future. This butterfly effect of positive change also comes with an education, a critical component that helps demystify and de-stigmatize menstruation among both men and women of all ages.

Period. End of Sentence. does an excellent job illustrating how a cultural taboo can have a crippling effect on a country and its people — and how a group of forward-thinking individuals who are willing to take unselfish risks can effect change on a global scale. In April, the film won best documentary short at the Cleveland International Film Festival.

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