University of Pennsylvania sophomore Claire Sliney will be in the audience at Sunday’s 91st annual Oscars.
As a nominee.
Two years past voting age, Sliney is an executive producer of Period. End of Sentence, one of five Academy Award-nominated entries in the documentary short films category.
Period follows a group of girls and women in a rural village outside New Delhi who fight back against India’s deeply-rooted stigma surrounding menstruation. Sliney, a Los Angeles native, has been involved in the project since her freshman year in high school.
When male Penn classmates ask about the focus of the 26-minute film — it debuted last week on Netflix — the conversation often turns awkward.
“Some of them don’t know what to say,” Sliney says. “They think it’s a women’s issue, but it actually has larger implications. We’re not talking about vaginas 24/7. Women are usually more receptive. They engage more.”
While many Penn alums have earned Oscar nods, Sliney is the first Quaker to be nominated while currently enrolled, according to the university’s Cinema & Media Studies Program.
Being up for filmdom’s highest honor “feels like an out-of-body experience,” says Sliney, who majors in philosophy, politics, and economics (PPE). “It’s crazy. This was a very homegrown project. None of us ever expected this.”
Period is the result of a grassroots collaboration that began in 2013 among students, teachers, and parents in Sliney’s Oakwood School, a progressive institution in North Hollywood whose website boasts that it’s the only school in California with a gorilla as a mascot. You can look it up.
On a field trip to the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, members of Oakwood’s Girls Learn International club were told about the taboo of menstruation in some cultures. It often leads to girls staying home from school during their periods or dropping out altogether.
“None of us had ever heard about the issue,” Sliney says. “As feminists, we talk so often about women’s disempowerment, but it’s not often we can target an individual systemic cause. We thought it was such a cool issue.”
The girls discovered that Indian social entrepreneur Arunachalam Muruganantham had invented a simple, low-tech machine to produce inexpensive sanitary products. Pads are a rare and expensive commodity in rural villages, where most women use reusable pieces of cloth.
The Pad Project, cofounded by Sliney, was created to raise money for a pad machine for the women of Kathikera. Action India, another nonprofit dedicated to women’s rights, helped with the enterprise.
Fund-raising began in late 2016, with school-sanctioned yogathons, bake sales, and a Kickstarter campaign. (“We reached out to Michelle Obama but didn’t hear back,” Sliney says). The pad machine was purchased, along with a year’s supply of materials.
The next step was getting the word out. The Oakwood parents, many of whom work in the movie industry, suggested making a short documentary, with a professional director.
At that point, says Sliney, “the whole thing snowballed. We were pretty much out of our league. It was never our intention to do a film or get to the Oscars. We didn’t understand what the impact would be. It surpassed all our expectations.”
When Rayka Zehtabchi (The Lunchbox), a recent University of Southern California film school graduate with a self-described “activist’s heart,” was approached by one of the parents, she says she "was totally moved and wanted to jump in. … I felt we were all on the same wavelength.”
Working “pretty much for free,” Zehtabchi and her crew traveled to India in January 2017 to film the pad machine’s arrival. Many of the women in the village had never seen a sanitary pad, not to mention a film crew. Some did not even know what menstruation was.
“Girls don’t know about their bodies,” says Zehtabchi, 25. “Mothers don’t talk to their daughters, friends don’t talk to each other. “
Six months later, when she returned to Kathikera, “I was astonished to see how much progress had been made.” Not only were women and girls using the pads, they had paying jobs — many for the first time — running the pad machine.
After Period’s April 5 release, it won accolades at film festivals across the country. That qualified it to compete for an Oscar nomination. Netflix later acquired distribution rights.
When the nominations were announced Jan. 22, Sliney’s screams woke up her housemates, she says. For Zehtabchi’s part, “I never jumped that high in my life”.
Sliney plans to attend the Oscars with her mother, Netflix executive, and Period producer Lisa Taback; Oakwood English teacher and club adviser Melissa Berton; and Zehtabchi. Sliney’s wardrobe choice is not exactly at the top of her to-do list. She may rent a dress.
Despite having grown up around movie celebrities, the Penn undergrad admits she’s feeling starstruck about Sunday.