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by Steven Allison

‘I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar’ – Period. End of Sentence review

When producer Melissa Berton and director Rayka Zehtabchi accepted an Oscar for their documentary, Period. End of Sentence earlier this month, one sentence in Zehtabchi’s speech captured the awe and elation of the evening. Steven Allison reviews their award-winning film and analyses how it can help India’s evolving attitude towards women.

'I can't believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar' - Period. End of Sentence review Subscript
Period. End of Setence (2018) won Best Documentary Short Subject at the 2019 Academy Awards

In a recent article, I wrote about the rising #MeToo movement in India, as well as its effect on female empowerment. While the article’s clear focus was on Indian women gaining the courage to speak up about their experiences of sexual assault and harassment, it also touched upon the broader issue of gender inequality across the country. The rise of #MeToo in India is just one paving stone on a much longer road to the resolution of all unique struggles faced by Indian women, the completion of which will require a massively holistic approach over a very long period.

When I use ‘period’ here, I refer to a length or portion of time. Of course, you know that. I obviously don’t mean the punctuation mark or the menstruation process, so why the need to clarify the point? Well, that’s just the thing; I’m making a point. Believe it or not, many Indian men have no idea what a period is. This time, I’m referring to menstruation.

In the cleverly-named Netflix documentary, Period. End of Sentence, a group of grinning Indian men blithely assert that a period is “a class period, like the kind you’d ring a bell for,” while menstruation is a “kind of illness” that “mostly affects ladies.” At the same time, the Indian women interviewed for the documentary can barely look at the camera, embarrassment written across their scarlet faces whenever the subject is raised. They don’t know why they bleed, but they’re certain it’s something they should be ashamed of. And there we have it; another paving stone to lay down on that long road to female empowerment in India.   

“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 at the 2019 Oscars

With Period. End of Sentence, Iranian-American director Rayka Zehtabchi seeks to raise awareness of the ubiquitous Indian perception of menstruation as a taboo. The 25-minute film promotes the endeavours of a few activists in a small rural settlement near New Delhi, as they fight against the deep-seated stigma attached to periods in a country plagued by gender inequality. With help from ‘The Pad Project,’ an American high-school not-for-profit, a machine that makes low-cost sanitary pads is brought to the village. This empowers women to both own and manage their periods. It also gives them a chance to monetize their menstruation, giving them a source of income and subsequently financial independence.

Zehtabchi highlights the desire of many contemporary Indian women to break down restrictive societal norms and to live as equal, autonomous beings. For these women, facing menstruation head-on is just one way they can achieve this goal. The documentary focuses on one young girl, Sneha, who wants to join the police force. She needs cash to make that happen, but a job in the small sanitary pad factory brings her goal a little closer.  

This big-hearted, cheerful story follows a 2018 Bollywood film called Pad Man, which follows an Indian activist looking to make cheap sanitary pads after discovering the filthy, bloody rags used by his wife. Like its forerunner, Period. End of Sentence will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy; its humility and empathy are no doubt to thank for its Best Documentary Short Subject Oscar win earlier this month. But picking up an Academy Award wasn’t the aim of the game here. The much nobler intentions of this film are to champion the laudable efforts of these plucky, determined women to battle through the patriarchal confinements they’ve passively ignored for generations.

Ultimately, it feels wrong to lambaste the technical elements of the well-meaning Period. End of Sentence. Sadly, us critical robots are programmed to do just that. So here goes…please don’t hate me. In film-making terms, there’s not much here to set the documentary apart from the other Academy Awards nominees in its category. Other than some sharp editing, well-chosen music, and nice camerawork, this isn’t a ground-breaking creative product. It almost feels like a truncated version of a much longer story, and I think the narrative would have lent itself better to a feature. Craft-wise, there’s still work to be done before the world will see Rayka Zehtabchi as an outstanding film-maker.

At the end of the day though, Period. End of Sentence has a wonderful message to spread with regards to female agency. And I’m sure it will do that just fine. Despite the flaws noted above, it has just nabbed an Oscar, so that says something. Please do watch this documentary and share it with your friends, not because it’s a fine piece of craftsmanship, but for the incredible contribution it makes to the empowerment of Indian women.

By Steven Allison

Freelance writer, editor and proofreader

Steven is a Scottish freelance writer and editor living in London. You'll often find him in a cozy corner of some coffee shop or other working on an article or his first novel. He also loves to learn French, sketching, and bake in his spare time.