In the morning of Friday, Feb. 22, Claire Sliney (C ’21), a former beat reporter for The Daily Pennsylvanian, went to class until 11 a.m. By 1 p.m., she was headed to the airport for a 3:55 p.m. direct flight home to Los Angeles. But this wasn’t an ordinary visit.
Claire and the rest of the team behind Netflix’s Period. End of Sentence., a documentary about raising awareness around menstruation and creating a business to sell sanitary pads in the Indian village of Kathikhera, were slated to attend the 2019 Academy Awards as a nominee for Best Documentary (Short Subject). Claire had ordered some potential gowns online, but because of the snowstorm that week, the delivery was delayed. So she picked up a black dress and quickly got it hemmed.
Saturday night was a dinner with the Period. team: pasta. Claire started her Sunday—the day of the ceremony—at around 10 a.m. with hair and makeup. By around 2 p.m., she headed to Hollywood’s Dolby Theater with the rest of the team, including her mother, a producer of the film who runs awards strategy for Netflix, and some of her closest friends from high school, who’ve been involved with the project since the beginning.
The group from Period. walked in and went to their table. They were seated next to Ron Stallworth, the man on whose life Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman is based. “He was so cool; he just seemed very wise,” Claire says.
In the bathroom, Claire ran into Emma Stone, who wished her luck. As the Documentary Short presentation drew closer, “none of us really expected to win. No one’s plan was to win,” Claire says. But when Awkwafina and John Mulaney came onstage to present the awards, Period. did win, and Claire was part of the coalition onstage. Later in the night, Claire passed a “sobbing” Lady Gaga and congratulated her on her win for Best Original Song.
When reflecting on meeting celebrities, Claire catches herself from getting too caught up in the glitz. “Obviously it was so so fun, but also just within the context of the bigger picture, part of me is going ‘oh my god I feel so dumb for being excited by meeting celebrities and talking about it when I know the core of the importance of it.’”
Claire and the Period. team walked out of the theater as Oscar winners. But the story started years ago at Oakwood School in Los Angeles.
Melissa Berton, a teacher at Oakwood School and a producer on the film, took a school trip to the United Nations around seven years ago as part of Girls Learn International (GLI), a club that promotes equal access to education for all genders. After students on the trip learned that girls in developing countries often drop out of school and face other stigmas when they begin to menstruate, they brought the issue back to Oakwood School.
After Claire joined GLI and became aware of this issue, she and other students started The Pad Project. One of its aims is to bring pad machines to communities around the world. These pad machines, which are featured heavily in the documentary, can be set up in homes and are used to manufacture sanitary pads. Oakwood School students raised money for a pad machine in Kathikhera and for the documentary through bake sales, yogathons, and ultimately a Kickstarter campaign.
The women in Kathikhera started a business around this pad machine, and much of the film focuses on them trying to sell pads in–person despite a cultural stigma around talking about periods. Another related goal of the Pad Project is to create a conversation around menstruation.
When The Pad Project’s members spoke about their work at an Oakwood School assembly, "talking about the fact that [they] were working on a project about periods in front of high school boys … was so intimidating." Even at Penn, Claire still sees periods as a taboo topic.
But now, she’s gotten over that awkwardness. “It’s definitely forced my mom, my friends, my coworkers, and other producers on the film to get 100% comfortable with the topic. I’m the person who could talk about periods forever.”
The Oakland students, led by Berton, worked with Action India, a group working to enhance women’s rights and their access to public health and civic services. Representatives from Action India acted as line producers and translators; the other on–site staff include Rayka Zehtabchi, the director, and Sam Davis, the cinematographer, editor, and co–producer.
Though Claire wasn’t involved with the filming and editing, and has not yet visited Kathikhera in person, she describes it as an “amazing community” and hopes to visit soon: “I think that they have come to us and now I think it’s our turn to go to them.”
Her role in Period., she explains, focused on “ideation.” She reached out to partners, did research on the village, and handled much of “the structure and backbone of the project,” as well as “a lot of the marketing and sort of post–production framing of the film.”
So the lead–up to the Oscars was the first time Claire met many of the women from Kathikhera. When she saw Sneha, one of the women featured in the documentary, Claire felt star–struck, like meeting a celebrity for the first time. Previously, the team communicated via Slack, whether for a work project or for discussing arrival logistics for the ceremony. Meeting in person felt special—a kind of “unification of the team.”
And after the win, Claire was stunned by the reception from India. “I think that there’s a sense of pride coming from all over India. The fact that it was an Indian film, with Indian producers, featuring Indian women talking about a problem that is sort of known in India, a problem that exists in India, and that it’s on the world stage getting so much attention from non–Indian people.”
One of the Oscar statuettes will be housed at Oakwood after Berton takes it on a tour throughout India. Claire says that “it is just as much our Oscar as it is India’s Oscar, if not more theirs, truly.” The other Oscar belongs to Zehtabchi, the director.
As for The Pad Project’s next move, they hope to continue working with women in Kathikhera to keep the momentum going, make sure the women have a reliable energy source, and continue their partnership with the community. People in Philadelphia have been reaching out to Claire about partnerships to support incarcerated women or women living below the poverty line with access to sanitary products, so that’s on the table too.
And Claire’s experience with Period. has convinced her to look into a career path she never considered before: film. She’d originally wanted to do social justice and politics, but says that Period. “brought me back to film, it just brought me full circle.” While she doesn’t plan to change her major anytime soon, she thinks it might be time to at least take her first cinema and media studies class.