The AFI DOCS Interview: PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE. Director Rayka Zehtabchi
Tucked away in an unsuspecting room in Kathikhera, a rural village in Northern India, steel frames and wooden crates filled with supplies crowd the space. These are the materials for what will become a new business venture for the women in the village: a sanitary pad revolution. In PERIOD. END OF SENTENCE., follow the women as they produce and sell thousands of pads to local women in an effort to improve feminine hygiene, all while battling uphill against one of the country’s greatest taboos — menstruation.
AFI spoke with director Rayka Zehtabchi about the film, which plays as part of Shorts Program 5 on Saturday, June 16. Get tickets here.
AFI: What drew you to documentary filmmaking?
I’ve always been obsessed with vérité-style narrative films by filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi and Paul Greengrass. But it was the story of itself that grabbed my attention in this case, and since I have always wanted to direct a documentary, this was a perfect opportunity when the producers were looking for a young female director.
AFI: What inspired you about this story?
It was remarkable and inspiring for me to think that this was all started by a group of 15- and 16-year-old girls with their high school teacher. They were raising money to send a sanitary pad machine to a village in India and they felt the best way to maximize the impact of the project was to make a documentary about the whole process. I kept asking myself, “Why have I never heard of this issue?” I was never hindered by my period because I always had pads and tampons at my disposal, growing up in California. However, so many women around the world don’t have access to those basic household items. That broke my heart. Being a woman is enough of a reason to be inspired and want to take action.
AFI: How did you find your subjects?
My DP and I went to India twice over the course of a year. The focus of our first trip was to capture the climate before the arrival of the pad machine. During this time, we talked to hundreds of girls and boys, women and men. We found that the majority of women had never even learned why they bled every month. Because menstruation is so taboo in India, many interviewees were extremely reluctant to speak on the topic. We chose to include a lot of perspectives in the film, but ultimately, we focused on Sneha, a young woman who began working with the collective that ran the pad machine, in order to fund her training for the Delhi Police Academy. We were so shocked and inspired by her determination to defy the cultural expectations of village women. I hope that really comes through in the film.
AFI: What was your biggest obstacle?
The biggest challenge was entering into remote villages as foreigners with a film crew to interview people about an extremely culturally sensitive topic, all while striving to maintain the natural order of the village. We wanted the interviews to be as comfortable and organic as possible, so if a crowd gathered, any level of intimacy was immediately compromised. There were times when we had to get clever by creating a distraction, hiding the camera gear, or entering a village with our faces covered. Our Indian producer, Mandakini Kakar, was a master coordinator and diplomat.
AFI: What do you hope audiences take away from your film?
Our team recently formed The Pad Project, a non-profit that serves as a resource for people looking to purchase and disseminate pad machines worldwide. We’re not just donating pads to communities in need — that would be a Band-Aid. By starting a sanitary pad business, women have the opportunity to earn their own wages and gain independence, all while educating other women on the importance of feminine hygiene. We hope our film leaves a lasting effect on our audience, compelling them to take action.