The Oscar-Winning Group from Oakwood School Shares What’s Next
The documentary was just the beginning.
- Written byHeather David
- Photographed byMonica Orozco
Seven years ago, Oakwood School English teacher Melissa Berton, serving as faculty sponsor for Girls Learn International, traveled alongside a few students to the United Nations. They were in New York to attend a commission on the status of women.
While attending the meeting, the girls were struck by something they learned. Young women in some third-world countries have to miss school when they’re menstruating because they don’t have access to feminine hygiene products.
”At one of the meetings we attended, we learned about a man in India who invented a simple pad machine and we thought, ‘what a practical solve to a worldwide problem,’” Melissa shares. The machine, they were told, doesn’t require much space, is easy to use and only needs a small amount of electricity to create low-cost disposable sanitary napkins. “So right there on the spot we decided we had to get a pad machine for our partner school in India. The idea for it happened in a flash,” the teacher adds.
Calling their effort The Pad Project, the group began regularly meeting during lunchtime and began holding vegan bake sales and “yogathons.” They also launched a Kickstarter campaign.
“They were raising money and awareness for a theoretical thing but it turned into all of these amazing sets of intangible skills along the way. They were breaking down classroom barriers and engaging in the real world,” says Phu Tranchi, the Director of Experiential Learning at Oakwood, a K-12 private school in North Hollywood.
Living in the heart of the entertainment industry, the students’ next move seemed like a natural one. They decided to take a bold step into the world of filmmaking, documenting the installation of the pad machine in Hapur, India, located outside of New Delhi.
“We started talking about making a movie to the Oakwood administrators and no one said no. Instead they kept saying, ‘Tell us more,’ and that was really liberating and permission-giving,” says Melissa, who is one of the producers on the documentary.
Oakwood students Mason Maxam and Charlotte Silverman in India last year with the pad making machine.
They recruited a recent University of Southern California film school graduate, 25-year-old Rayka Zehtabchi, to serve as director and titled the movie Period. End of Sentence.
The students also reached out to the parents of two 2017 Oakwood graduates and Pad Project alums. Ruby Schiff’s father—writer/producer Garrett Schiff—and Claire Slaney’s mom, Lisa Taback, an awards strategist for Netflix—are credited as producers on the film.
Clocking in at 26 minutes, the film quickly gained attention on the festival circuit. It won several awards, including one at the AFI film festival. And then the real bombshell: The film garnered worldwide recognition when it won this year’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject.
“Even when this film was first being made, it was never the goal to win any awards. At first we thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if this went to a film festival; then, wouldn’t this be cool if this got shortlisted,’ but no one ever thought we’re going to win an Oscar,” says ninth grader Maggie Brown.
“Winning the award gets the word out about what’s happening and is helping get rid of the taboo around periods, which has always been our goal,” states Lila Sugerman, a sophomore at Oakwood.
Fresh off the win and now with global accessibility on Netflix, the film is bringing opportunities for Melissa and her students at lightning speed.
“We’ve had outreach from 17 different countries who want pad machines. There’s also been talk of a future docuseries. It’s been a huge journey with the one documentary, but who knows—anything is possible,” exclaims Melissa who also serves as CEO of The Pad Project.
The club, open to all Oakwood middle school and high school students, still meets weekly to further the cause.
“What we’re working toward now is global awareness. We want to work with as many communities as we can to install as many pad machines as possible. We also want to work in California and the United States because one in five girls have to leave or miss school because they don’t have access to affordable hygienic supplies,” Lila explains.
The other message they want to convey to their peers is that anything is possible with vision and perseverance. “We started this when we were 12, 13 years old, and what I would say to young activists who want to make a change is just go for it—if you have the passion,” says Lila.
For more information visit thepadproject.org
To hear more of Melissa’s story, check out the SheSez with Linda Grasso podcast at SheSez.com
Plus, the owners on their secret for success.
Talk about defying odds!