LA Teens Challenge India's Taboos Around Periods In This Oscar-Nominated Doc

Students from Oakwood School in North Hollywood raised funds to buy a machine and materials to make sanitary pads for women in India, a journey documented in the Oscar-nominated short film Period. End of Sentence. (Courtesy of the Pad Project)

By Andrea Gutierrez with John Horn and Julia Paskin

Way before the student producers of Period, End of Sentence could make a film about menstruation and women's sanitary products, they had to get comfortable talking about it. "I couldn't even say the word 'period,' but I knew what it was," executive producer and Oakwood School student Maggie Brown told the Frame.

The idea for the film, now nominated for a Documentary (Short Subject) Academy Award, came after the North Hollywood school's chapter of Girls Learn International (GLI) took a trip to the United Nations. In a session of the Commission on the Status of Women, they learned that many girls in the "global south" (also known as "developing countries") quit school when they start menstruating. They do so not only because of taboos around menstruation, but because of a lack of access to sanitary products like pads, tampons, and cups.

Oakwood teacher Melissa Berton, also a producer, chaperoned the U.N. trip.

"Maybe because we're Angelenos," she said, "we thought right away we needed to make a documentary to raise awareness about this."

Another factor: many of the students involved were well connected, with parents and friends already working in entertainment.

The girls learned Arunachalam Muruganantham, an inventor in southern India, had created a machine for making affordable biodegradable sanitary pads. The only problem was the high cost of the machine and the materials: around $11,000.

So the girls got to work raising money to buy a pad machine, and to document the journey by making a film in India. But as anyone who's made even a short film knows, the costs add up quickly.

"It felt like we were always running out of money," Berton said.

They managed to raise the funds through two successful Kickstarter campaigns, along with holding bake sales and yoga salons. They continued to raise funds for more pad machines by creating The Pad Project, a non-profit organization.

The girls learned a lot about their privilege making the film. Brown said that she and her peers at their private school take it for granted that when they get their first periods, they'll be OK.

"I can just get a pad," Brown said. But she learned that not everyone is so lucky, and that lack of access to sanitary products isn't limited to other parts of the world. "Here in America, here in California, it's a huge problem."

In the film, boys and young men in India show extreme discomfort when asked about periods. But student Naomi Lopez said it wasn't much different for boys at her school.

"Here in L.A., periods still aren't a conversation that is normalized," Lopez said.

Since the release of the documentary and the acclaim it's received, the girls have witnessed a surprising change when it comes to talking about periods at Oakwood.

"Now boys are even talking about it," Lopez said, "which is really exciting and interesting."

Listen to this interview on KPCC's The Frame podcast.