What strikes me about the five 2019 Academy Award nominated documentary short films that I saw as a package is how unrelentingly heavy they are in both subject matter and style.
It’s not like that’s inherent in documentaries. Think of the delightful Tickle, or the wonderful Won’t You Be My Neighbor? or even Michael Moore’s films. Documentaries can be about positive or offbeat subjects, and in style they can be light, humorous, heartwarming, playful, etc.
I mean, granted some of these nominees can be taken as feel-good or inspiring films in the sense of showing some people’s positive responses to crises and major problems. I came away from End Game feeling positive in certain respects, for instance.
But still, let’s see, we’ve got gang racism and violence, medical care for dying people, American Nazis, desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, and now, with Period. End of Sentence, oppression of women in India.
I was noticeably more into the first three of the five films, but I wonder how much of that really has to do with the films themselves, or if sitting in a very crowded theater for about three hours (counting a lengthy intermission), I would have been fatigued and less engaged with whichever of the films happened to come last after being hit over the head with so much downer material.
My guess is I would have appreciated End Game as my favorite of the five regardless, but the order might well have affected how receptive I was to the four others.
At least Period. End of Sentence does have a very, very modest number of playful elements to it, compared to the others.
But first let’s talk about what this documentary is about.
The film depicts the efforts of a nonprofit group called the “Pad Project.” The project’s aim is to combat the ways that societal attitudes about menstruation result in harm to women.
In rural India as in much of the Third World, many women don’t have access to or cannot afford sanitary menstruation pads, so they make due with rags, leaves, or pretty much anything they can stick up there and hope for the best. This obviously leads to infection risks and other medical problems, which affects the ability of women and girls to keep a job or remain in school.
There are also related social issues. For example, one woman describes how when she was in school, she had a terrible time finding anywhere to quickly switch out whatever rag or makeshift pad she was using. She’d duck outside and look for an isolated spot, but invariably curious guys would gather and heckle and harass her when they realized what she was up to. (The lack of bathrooms or any place in a school that a person could have any privacy strikes me as at least as big a deal as the lack of sanitary napkins, by the way.)
Not to mention, menstruation is considered by the religion and culture to be something dirty, a matter of shame. Menstruating women, for instance, are traditionally barred from entering a Hindu temple. Many women are reluctant to seek education about menstruation, or are embarrassed to buy pads in a store even if they can afford them.
Not all of the oppression of women comes from such attitudes toward menstruation of course, but a certain percentage of women’s suffering and reduced life opportunities can indeed be attributed to the direct and indirect effects of how India deals with menstruation.
(The film happens to be about the project’s efforts in India, but obviously a lot of this applies to other societies as well.)
I mentioned that there are a small number of more playful moments in the film. Certainly the one woman’s statement—spoken with a proud, anticipatory smile—that once she fulfills her dream to become a cop she is going to kick the ass of anyone who attempts to hold her and other women down drew plenty of appreciative snickers from the people in the theater where I saw the film.
But my favorite was when a group of teenage boys is stopped in the street and asked if they know what a period is. They look puzzled in response, and one of them tentatively offers, “You mean like a period in school? Like with a bell?” The questioner clarifies by asking if they know what menstruation is. They look at each other uncertainly, and decide that they vaguely recall it being some kind of illness. “An illness?” the questioner says. “Yeah,” one of them responds, “I think it’s an illness that mostly girls get.”
The Pad Project is responding to the situation by facilitating the distribution and use of a device invented by an Indian man that makes cheap, biodegradable pads from locally-sourced materials that are actually more effective than the name-brand pads that most of these women can’t afford anyway.
It is a machine that can be set up in a home or small commercial space, and easily run by local people. (Shades of Gandhi’s village industries, especially his emphasis on providing employment and income to India’s starving masses by popularizing the use of the spinning wheel. I wonder what he’d think of this? My guess is that given the fact that in his way he was actually something of a feminist, and that he was always trying to break down unhealthy taboos about talking about and dealing with defecation and urination and such, household machines to manufacture sanitary napkins would be right up his alley.)
The efforts of the Pad Project don’t seem to be generating much opposition, at least judging from the anecdotal evidence of the film. The guys in the homes where the machines are being set up don’t seem to care one way or the other, though it’s possible that’s because they have little or no grasp of what is actually being manufactured (and the women aren’t going out of their way to see to it that they understand). A couple of them who are asked what their wives or daughters are making, shrug and say they think it’s Huggies diapers or something like that.
I didn’t dislike Period. End of Sentence, and it held my interest modestly well, but like I say, whether because I was losing steam by then or not, I was less into this one than the first three of the nominees, and only modestly more into it than Lifeboat.
For what it’s worth, though, of all five of the nominees, this film got easily the most applause as it ended from my fellow theatergoers. I interpreted that as an indication that it was their clear favorite, but I guess there’s a chance that since it was the last one shown, some of those folks were applauding for the whole package of five collectively.