About four years ago, at Los Angeles’ Oakwood School, English teacher Melissa Berton was teaching Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House” — an 1879 play addressing themes of social reputation and gender expectation. During class discussions, budding feminist students — including Sophie Ascheim ’22 — caught Berton’s attention, and she invited these students to join her in a project that would alter their lives.

This project was to create a film that documented international menstrual inequity. Following years of dedication, Berton’s plan reached fruition, and the documentary short — “Period. End of Sentence.” — was nominated for a 2019 Academy Award. The team has also agreed on a release deal with Netflix.

“This was still a group of teenagers, their English teacher and a 25-year-old filmmaker,” Ascheim said. “This was by no means a high-tech production, but we just wanted it to be somewhere people could see it. As cool as it was that we were winning awards, that wasn’t the most important goal.”

The story of “Period. End of Sentence.” began in 2013. Berton, acting as the faculty advisor for the Oakwood School chapter of Girls Learn International, took a group of students to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women as delegates. Girls Learn International is an organization under the auspices of the Feminist Majority Foundation that seeks to give high school students a voice in the movement for equal access to education for all genders. Berton first learned of international menstrual inequity during this commission.

At the commission, Berton also learned of Arunachalam Muruganantham’s sanitary pad machine, which sustainably creates menstrual products using biodegradable materials. Muruganantham’s machines were distributed to communities in India that did not have access to menstrual products and are managed by local women.

Berton felt that a short documentary could effectively facilitate education on menstrual inequity, but wanted a team of young activists to engage with this project. After finding students like Ascheim to join her, the group founded the Pad Project, a nonprofit dedicated to ending period poverty.

The Pad Project then collaborated with Action India, a grassroots feminist organization in India that seeks to eliminate gender discrimination and facilitate access to education, health care and economic rights for people of all genders. Through this collaboration, the Oakwood students established correspondence with students in a rural Indian village and began to notice that the girls they met were dropping out of school. Administrators told the Oakwood students that girls without access to menstrual products often halted their education once their periods began.

“We realized pretty quickly that there is a taboo surrounding periods in the U.S.,” Ascheim said. “But you can’t talk about periods in India. Ever. Most girls, especially in rural villages, don’t know why they bleed — they don’t know what it’s called. That’s when we decided to create a partnership with Action India and install a machine in this village.”

The Oakland team started a Kickstarter page and raised $45,000, which was funneled toward the installation of one of Muruganantham’s pad machines. The money also contributed a year’s worth of pad-making materials and funded the production of the documentary.

“I think we can safely say that ours is the first Academy Award-nominated film whose funding was completely raised by high school students,” Berton said. “I’m pretty sure that’s safe to say.”

With these funds, the Pad Project commissioned Rayka Zehtabchi, a University of Southern California film graduate, to work on the project. Zehtabchi traveled to India in March 2017 to document the machine’s installation and returned in September of the same year to collect people’s reactions. Zehtabchi distilled hours of footage into a 25-minute documentary short, primarily comprised of interviews with civilians interacting with the new machine.

“This was a very challenging film to make, both logistically and emotionally,” Zehtabchi said. “Going there and seeing it all firsthand and talking to our subjects about such an intimate thing — it was a completely different experience for me. You don’t realize how much women are suffering as a result of these taboos until you see and experience what they go through each day.”

Zehtabchi added that the process of making the film has “transformed” her.

Ascheim and Berton noted that the film is intended to spark and destigmatize conversations about periods.

“I want people who menstruate to think about their personal experiences with menstruation and their relationship to menstrual products,” Ascheim said. “I want people to consider their communities and their privileges and broaden the conversation about menstruation in those communities.”

Even though many of the girls who produced the documentary are now in college, the Pad Project continues to function. Berton is working with a new group of students at Oakwood School and Ascheim and her peers are still involved.

The 91st Academy Awards will take place on Feb. 24 at 8 p.m.

Rianna Turner | rianna.turner@yale.edu