Oscar-winning documentary ‘Period. End of Sentence.’ pushes back against menstrual taboo

The short film follows a group of Indian women who make and sell affordable sanitary pads in their community.

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This article contains spoilers for “Period. End of Sentence.”

“I’m not crying because I’m on my period or anything! I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” Rayka Zehtabchi said tearfully as she accepted the 2019 Academy Award for Best Documentary (Short Subject). The 25-year-old’s documentary “Period. End of Sentence.” is largely rooted in this sort of invigorated near-disbelief.

It was a group of Los Angeles high school students who wholly funded the Netflix original. They first became involved after founding The Pad Project — a nonprofit that raises money to buy pad-making machines for impoverished communities. Zehtabchi herself directed it only a year after graduating from college, in partnership with prominent women’s rights organizations like Girls Learn International and the Feminist Majority Foundation.

Comprised of footage gathered on two 2017 trips to India, the film follows a group of women who begin making and selling sanitary pads when one of the Pad Projects’ machines is installed in their rural village of Kathikera. As villagers explain in an opening montage, the effects of menstrual stigma can lead to early marriage and educational barriers.

“The daughter never talks to the mother, the wife never talks to the husband, friends never talk to each other. Menstruation is the biggest taboo in my country,” pad machine inventor Arunachalam Muruganatham proclaims.

As a project springboarded by an American-based charity, “Period. End of Sentence.” runs the risk of becoming an archetypical savior narrative. Instead, Zehtabchi makes the smart decision to leave the film’s backers for the credits and allow her subjects’ frank musings to speak for themselves.

The organizations and creatives bustling to help recount these women’s efforts seem to physically fade away early on, bolstering their accounts without ever indicating that the story isn’t theirs to tell. Gradually, we learn about more and more of them — from aspiring policewoman Sneha, a teenager who dreams of leaving home to become a policewoman, to community organizer Shabana Khan.

Focusing on the activism of the community as a whole also sets a naturalistically sanguine tone that feels missing from many short documentaries of the same nature. Even as some young girls admit to being embarrassed or threatened by their periods, they still giggle among their schoolmates; a woman leaving cloth out for villagers who can’t afford pads playfully brandishes curious dogs; workers at the pad machine tease visiting brothers.

Kathikera is portrayed lovingly, with bright colors and gentle camerawork. The score builds from thoughtful strings in the opening montage to ebullient Bollywood music in the end. When audiences are informed about progress that the business and specific women within it have made since filming wrapped, for once inspirational documentary credits feel earned.

Since “Period. End of Sentence.” received an Oscar, well-known director Steven Spielberg has stirred for proposing rule changes that would bar films exclusive to streaming services like Netflix from awards consideration. Whatever his reasoning, if the success of this documentary is any indication, the holistic platform that it gives to stories like the Kalikari pad project is worth more than a second look.

Edited by Joe Cross | jcross@themaneater.com

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