USC alumnae, student win Oscar for film

School of Cinematic Arts alumnae Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton and graduate student Helen Yenser aimed to depict the struggle of menstruation in the face of cultural taboos in their film. (Photo from NBC Twitter)

A camera crew sets up equipment in the middle of a rural village in India. They move swiftly around the area, recording as young women and girls walk excitedly away from a small industrial machine with newly made menstrual pads in hand. The crew was filming “Period. End of Sentence” — now an Oscar-winning short film.

School of Cinematic Arts alumna Rayka Zehtabchi directed the film and SCA alumna Melissa Berton and current graduate student Helen Yenser produced the film. They won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject Sunday night. “Period. End of Sentence” was produced in collaboration with the Pad Project, a nonprofit organization that sends pad-making machines to communities in underdeveloped countries. The organization was originally created by Yenser and supported by her mother, Berton. 

“I’m not crying because I am on my period or anything,” Zehtabchi said during her acceptance speech at the Oscars. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar.”

The documentary follows the implementation of a pad-making machine in the rural village of Hapur District outside of Delhi, India. It depicts the stigma surrounding menstruation in the village and the negative effects it can have on young girls who don’t have access to menstrual products. 

According to Zehtabchi, the filmmakers wanted to highlight women’s struggles to survive in a culture where menstruation is a taboo subject.

“You really don’t realize how detrimental this taboo [is] and the shame around menstruation until you really start talking to women and seeing what they experience every single month,” Zehtabchi said in an interview with the Daily Trojan. 

Zehtabchi attributes her success to the professors and fellows at SCA who supported her during the filmmaking process.

“My first phone call went out to Rachel Ward, who was my producing professor … and Rachel had just finished producing a film in India,” Zehtabchi said. “She was on the phone with me for a couple of hours just trying to help connect me with people in India and trying to give me the best word of advice that she possibly could.” 

During the Oscars ceremony, Berton told reporters backstage about its subjects’ reactions to the film.

“The women in the village were [one of] the first audiences to actually see the finished film … and they really felt proud of how they came across,” Berton said. “We’ve been talking to them all week because they’re here, and this has made a lot of change for them.”

Zehtabchi hopes the film will educate people about the lack of menstrual product accessibility and spark conversation about menstruation in developing countries.

“I’m very interested in [the] period movement now and … I really believe that we need to continue to spread awareness about this issue,” Zehtabchi said. “Our film focuses on a very specific small village in India, but there are millions of stories worldwide around menstruation and women’s experiences … that I still think need to be told.” 

Zehtabchi said winning the Oscar has drawn international attention to the issues depicted in the film.

“Because of the film’s release, we’ve installed two more pad machines in neighboring villages,” Zehtabchi said. “I know for a fact that since we released on Netflix and since the Oscar, there’s been an insane number of donations to the Pad Project.” 

Yenser, one of the film’s producers, is also celebrating the Oscar victory.

“I could never have pictured it seven years ago, when I started the movement as a high school student with my mom,” Yenser wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “Now I’m in graduate school for writing in film and television. It’s been a wild journey, and I’m grateful for every minute of it.”