Awkwafina and John Mulaney ripped open the red envelope and leaned into the microphone. Their next words would mark an unforgettable moment in Sophie Ascheim’s ’22 memory: “And the Oscar goes to ‘Period. End of Sentence.’”
On Sunday, this 26-minute Netflix documentary about women’s hygiene and menstruation — for which Ascheim served as an executive producer — won an Oscar at the 91st Academy Awards for Best Documentary Short. Grown out of a high school project, the film documents a group of women in rural India advocating for menstrual equality and accessibility. The documentary highlights the importance of ending stigmas around menstruation and empowering women.
“It’s been very crazy. I’m not sure it’s really sunk in yet, and I don’t think it will for awhile,” said Ascheim. “It was kind of an out of body experience from start to finish,” she said. “I was like, ‘holy crap, I’m at the Oscars!’”
According to data from nonprofits and organizations including the United Nations, 80 percent of girls in India face restrictions around menstruation. Globally, at least 500 million women and adolescent girls lack access to facilities for managing their periods, according to a report from the World Health Organization and UNICEF.
20 percent of Indian girls drop out of school after getting their periods, while 88 percent of women use homemade alternatives to menstrual products such as rags, used fabric and sand, according to a report by the United States Agency for International Development.
“Menstruation is a big taboo in India,” explained Ascheim. She said that some women do not use traditional pads because they were “being sold at ridiculous prices” by men in convenience stores, making menstrual products even more inaccessible. By using locally sourced and biodegradable materials, the Indian women on whom the documentary focuses make pads for a much cheaper price using a special machine.
Since the first machine’s arrival to India, the team installed two more machines in neighboring Indian villages due to the documentary’s increased attention since its Oscar nomination.
The film stemmed from a group of Los Angeles high school students at Oakwood High School who wanted to discover a way to keep girls in school even after they started their periods. Ascheim and her classmates, alongside their English teacher Melissa Berton, organized a Kickstarter campaign to fund their documentary project to India. Through the Kickstarter, the group raised $45,000 to fund the film, a one-year supply of menstrual products and the locally-manufactured machine that would produce the biodegradable pads for the entire rural Indian village.
“Movies are really, really expensive,” Ascheim admitted.
Ascheim credits part of the film’s success to meeting the “right people at the right time,” including filmmaker Rayka Zehtabchi, who joined the film team two years ago.
“Most of us grew up in Hollywood,” said Ascheim. “Living in L.A., I think most of us have parents in entertainment industry.”
She added that because she and her classmates experienced what she described as an “incredibly privileged” upbringing, “none of [them] knew about this issue” until the group attended a meeting for the U.N. Commission for Status and Women and learned about the issues surrounding menstrual inequity in rural Indian communities. Through their cofounded nonprofit, the girls hoped to discover a viable solution to this issue and draw attention to these women.
The filmmakers and producers were all women and the unconventional team comprised mostly college first years and sophomores.
Ascheim cofounded The Pad Project with executive producer and former classmate Charlotte Silverman when they were in 11th grade. Ascheim said that their goal was and remains to continue working with different communities and put an end to “period poverty and menstrual inequity.” Ascheim said that the Oscar win “means [they] can keep digging into the nonprofit.”
Ascheim admitted the nonprofit cannot serve as a “one-size-fits all solution,” but said that the team has received “a ton of requests” for pad machines since the Oscar nomination.
Silverman, a first year at Brown University, agreed that their win “didn’t feel real at all until yesterday.”
“In my mind I hope that people who see the film and see the momentum of this movement feel a connection and inspiration from stories that are shown in the film,” Silverman said. “I’m hoping that people feel inspired by this quiet revolution depicted in the film.”
She hopes the film will “inspire more people to see pad machines as a tool for empowerment and making real change” while allowing the “global network of activists to come together and create things we first envisioned.”
Avery Siegel, a sophomore at Tulane University who was also an executive producer of the documentary, shared Ascheim and Silverman’s sentiments.
“We wanted to use this film to spread the issue and use it as an educational tool,” she said. Siegel added that a goal of the documentary is to “[change] the conversation around menstruation form private to public on the global scale.”
She said that the team was “not expecting [their win] in the slightest.”
“I think it’s less about the Oscar win — it’s more about the platform it gave us,” Siegel noted. “We are now able to reach such a large audience of people and talk to people about these issues which was the goal the entire time.”
Acheim said that “by getting there, the film had done its job for us. We had already won because people were talking about it. That’s the reason we were doing this.”
On the Dolby Theatre stage on Sunday, Acheim’s English teacher and producer Berton, summed up the projects with the words: “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.”
Other Yale alumni Oscar winners from Sunday night include actor Brian Tyree Henry DRA ’07 in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won Best Animated Feature; screenwriter Josh Singer DRA ’94 in “First Man,” which won Best Visual Effects; and Lupito Nyong’o DRA ’12, Angela Bassett ’80 DRA ’83, Winston Duke DRA ’13, Renée Wilson DRA ’16, Zenzi Williams DRA ’15, Sarah Finn ’86 and professor in the Practice of Acting and Director of Speech and Dialects Beth McGuire for their roles in “Black Panther,” which won Best Original Score, Production Design and Costume Design.
Allison Park | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Feb. 27: A previous version of this article stated that Black Panther won the award for best Documentary Design. In fact, it won the award for best production design.