While most of us watch the Oscars, firmly locked to our couches, Sam Davis — a young filmmaker and Potterville High School graduate — will don his finest and wait among the gaggle of celebrities to see if the documentary he shot and edited, “Period. End of Sentence,” wins the award for Best Documentary Short.
“I cut my teeth making local commercials for companies around Charlotte and Lansing for free — just to get experience,” Davis, 26, said.
“Period. End of Sentence,” backed by The Pad Project nonprofit and renowned Indian film producer Guneet Monga, brings the audience to the rural Indian village of Hapur, where the subject of menstruation is rarely spoken of — resulting in a taboo that fosters shame in young women who simply do not understand what their period is.
Interviews, conducted with vital help from Indian line producer and interpreter Mandakini Kakar, reveal the village’s women have no access to feminine hygiene projects — tampons, pads, etc. — and are unaware of what such products are for.
The lack of knowledge on the subject is shared with the village’s young men as well, who are unable to explain what periods actually are.
“We would talk to a 60 or 70-year-old women who thought that they had a disease, because they bled every month,” Davis said. “They had never learned what a period was or why it was happening.”
Western squeamishness on the subject of menstruation is nowhere near comparable to the extent of the issue in the Indian village.
“We knew there would be some shyness, but we didn’t know how crippling it was for these women,” Davis said.
As the production crew spoke to the Hapur villagers about menstruation, it was crucial to maintain a low profile to preserve the honesty and intimacy of the interviews.
“It was critical that we didn’t come in and completely disrupt the normal pace and rhythm of life in the village,” Davis said. “If we caused a scene, which would happen often, we would quickly gather a crowd of 50 to 100 people. There’s no way you’re going to talk to a girl about one of their biggest taboos with a crowd watching.”
Davis described throwing blankets over the cameras and entering the homes of their subjects through the back door to avoid drawing attention.
“It was kind of like a heist movie,” he said.
“Period. End of Sentence” also captures the aftermath of the installation of a machine purchased from Indian entrepreneur and activist Arunachalam Muruganantham, which allows the men and women of Hapur to create sanitary napkins from biodegradable materials. Davis noted a strong improvement upon the crew’s second visit to Hapur, where they saw how the machine was being implemented into daily life.
“It was really cool to see that progress,” he said.
But make no mistake, the taboos surrounding menstruation are still visible worldwide. It’s widely reported that many marginalized groups of women in the United States — the homeless and poor in particular — face similar struggles in lacking access to important feminine hygiene products.
The Tennessean, a newspaper in Nashville, reported in August on Middle Tennessee girls’ skipping school during their periods because they couldn’t afford tampons or pads.
“I think it’s important to destigmatize the topic overall. Growing up in Michigan, and it’s probably the same for most men — whether it’s in the Midwest or California — I had never talked to my mom or sister about their period,” Davis said. “The film is a fist in the air for women, but I think it’s equally important for men to be a part of the conversation. It’s highlighted in the film that a patriarchal society imposes a lot of shame on women for things that are completely natural.”
The origin of the “Period. End of Sentence” began several years ago with Los Angeles high school English teacher Melissa Burton’s attendance at the Commission on the Status of Women conference at the United Nations. It was there Burton learned of Indian women who were dropping out of school in droves because of the shame they experience from their periods.
Burton and her students at Los Angeles’ Oakwood School were then inspired to combat the issue, so they contacted Girls Learn International, an organization that pairs U.S. high schools with schools in developing nations where the education of young women is threatened.
The subsequent snowballing grassroots movement attracted the backing of several executive producers, effectively shepherding the process of getting the documentary that Davis eventually became attached to in the works.
While Potterville certainly isn’t known for producing a wealth of filmmakers, the inspired Davis benefitted from the shortlived Michigan film incentive program, which lowered the production costs for studios via cheaper taxes and attracted filmmakers to Michigan; scenes from “Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice” were filmed in East Lansing.
Fresh out of high school when the program was at its height, Davis found himself working on a film shot in Michigan called “Love and Honor.” On the set, Davis worked as a camera assistant studying under Theo Van de Sande, a member of the American Society of Cinematographers.
Being thrust onto the production of a higher budget independent film was a huge step up from filming local high school football games.
“It was my first real movie set. I had done all kinds of projects on my own but ‘Love and Honor’ was my first real exposure,” he said.
It was on that set where he befriended one of the film’s co-writers and producers Garrett Schiff, whom proved an important contact. Davis and director
Rayka Zehtabchi became attached to “Period. End of Sentence” by the recommendation of Schiff.
“It was a cool, full-circle kind of thing. Garrett is still a great friend and mentor to me,” Davis said.
The process of learning your feature is Oscar-nominated is a nerve-wracking one, says Davis. Once a film is shortlisted, the crew is required to film themselves the morning the final nominations are announced.
“It’s disturbing, we didn’t know if we were going to be nominated. We would have had this horrifying video of us learning we weren’t nominated. Fortunately, we were.”
Hanging out in California, the 8 a.m. Eastern Time set for the announcements meant Davis and company had to sit awake at the brisk hour 5 a.m. — loading themselves up on coffee.
“Our film was fifth out of five to be announced. It was an incredible nail-biter.”
Davis will attend the Academy Awards with Zehtabchi, Schiff and Burton, along with some of “Period. End of Sentence’s” interviewees.
“You can just imagine — it’s really exciting,” Davis said.
And what’s next for Davis? He’s returning to Potterville to begin work on directing a film called “Cents,” which will center on the lives of its characters as they are impacted by the train derailment that struck the town in 2002.
“We want to fill it with a lot of local personalities, even if they’ve never acted before,” he said.
“Period. End of Sentence” is now viewable on Netflix. For more information on the “Cents” casting call, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call (310) 993-7748.