July 13, 2018
Alumni Spotlight: Rayka Zehtabchi
NFFTY has grown into a wonderful community of over 2,500 filmmakers from around the world. Alumni have experienced successes in many areas of the media industry. To celebrate these achievements, we are highlighting NFFTY alumni here!
Next up is Rayka Zehtabchi, a NFFTY '16 alumni who's film Madaran was a powerful Closing Night look into the story of an Iranian mother who had to decide whether to end or spare the life of her son's killer. Recently, Rayka partnered with The Pad Project, an organization started by high school students (just like NFFTY!). The film, called Period. End of Sentence. takes place in a rural village in India, where a group of women band together to install and operate a sanitary pad-making machine and combat the crushing stigma of menstruation. Celebrities from Sara Gilbert to Kiefer Sutherland took to social media to promote the film and it recently won Best Documentary Short at the Cleveland International Film Festival.
OUR INTERVIEW WITH RAYKA:
What was the initial goal for the project and how did it evolve over time?
This project was started by Melissa Berton, an English teacher at Oakwood High School in Los Angeles, and a group of her students who were all a part of Girls Learn International, a sister organization to the Feminist Majority Foundation. Melissa had learned about the issue of young girls dropping out of school as a result of their periods from a UN conference she attended years ago. After doing some digging, Melissa and her daughter, Helen, came across Muruganantham’s invention of the pad machine. Their goal for the next five or so years was to raise enough money to purchase and distribute pad machines to areas that needed it the most.
Just two years ago, the GLI group at Oakwood decided the best way to bring awareness to the issue would be to make a documentary. After working with Action India, a Delhi based organization, they wanted to purchase and install a machine in a village in India and document the journey.
Garrett Schiff, one of the producers, brought me on board as the director. We immediately launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised about $60,000 and with that money we purchased a machine and funded the documentary.
Were there challenges making a film in another country?
Where do I begin? I had never made a documentary before, nonetheless one in a foreign country. I was also one of the producers on the film, along with Melissa Berton, Garrett Schiff, and Lisa Taback. We shot entirely in India and had a local crew, with the exception of me and my DP/Editor/boyfriend, Sam Davis. Sam and I don’t speak Hindi, so we relied a lot on our EP, Madakini Kakar to conduct the interviews and translate for us. That in and of itself was a challenge as there was never enough time to fully translate the interviews on the spot. I often say that Sam and I didn’t know exactly what we had shot until everything was transcribed in the states months later. It felt like starting from scratch.
What was the made up of your crew, both above-the-line and below-the-line?
There was and still is a lot of support around this project. Many people generously donated their time and resources for this cause. To that I’m so grateful.
Along with the Oakwood girls who were our EPs, we had some power women and men on board to help us produce the film: Stacey Sher, Guneet Monga, Doug Blush and Lisa Taback. Other producers were Anissa Siegel and Bob Gatto, who have also been very active in the creation of The Pad Project, our non-profit organization.
We were so lucky to have Dan Romer and Osei Essed’s music in our film, with a few originally composed pieces by the incredibly talented Giosue Greco. These are some of my favorite composers that we so aggressively (and successfully) pursued!
Sam Davis beautifully shot, edited, sound designed, and co-produced the film. He has been my creative partner since Madaran. I’m still determined to figure out what it is he can’t do exceptionally well.
What was the process like working with The Pad Project, which was founded by a group of high schoolers (just like NFFTY!)?
I am truly so in awe of these young women, who at 15, 16, 17 years old devoted so much of their time and hearts to this cause. The group includes Helen Yenser, Avery Siegel, Carly Gatto, Charlotte Silverman, Claire Sliney, Ruby Schiff, and Sophie Aschiem.
When coming on board, I met with the Oakwood girls countless times to discuss story and hear their expectations of the film. They had a vision of how far they wanted to take this project, and it was so exciting to come on board and help them hone in on it and expand. I deeply admire each and every one of them.
How did you navigate addressing this sensitive cultural taboo as an outsider?
As much as we tried to lay low, we couldn’t help the fact that we were ultimately foreigners entering into remote villages with a film crew, aspiring to interview people about an extremely culturally sensitive topic. As a filmmaker, all you want is to keep things organic and intimate in that type of situation. Every day was a game of chess, both logistically and in regards to the interviews. Which corner of the village should we enter from to draw the smallest crowd? What’s the best way to strip down our crew and gear? How do we earn the trust of our subjects with such little time? One day we lost the chess game and were banned from entering one of the villages.
When we went to India the first time, the machine had just arrived in the village. At that point, women were incredibly shy and unwilling to speak. The village women had actually lied to the men and told them they were installing a Huggies machine to avoid conflict.
By the second trip, six months had passed and women were not only talking about their periods, they were making and selling pads to other women. The men were fully aware of what was going on and surprisingly had very little qualms with it. We even had a few men make pads themselves! It really felt like progress.
What was the process for reaching out to the stars that ended up supporting the project?
The Oakwood girls would spend hours meeting about how to contact influential people and get their attention. With help from parents and a few connectors, we were able to use our resources and get a ton of support from the Hollywood community. A few tweets from the right people goes a long way.
How has the film been received so far?
It’s been a dream. The film is so positive and uplifting. I think it’s really touching for an audience to see proof that this machine actually brought change in these women’s lives and is continuing to empower them.
We had our premiere at the wonderful Cleveland International Film Festival and thankfully walked away with the Oscar qualifying Jury award for Best Short Documentary. It was a huge blessing to qualify for the Oscars at our first festival. We’re continuing our festival run this year and will be beginning our Oscar campaign soon.
What kind of change do you hope comes from people seeing this film?
When you watch the women in our film pull off this major task with all the obstacles they’re faced with, it’s hard not to feel motivated. By starting a sanitary pad business, women have the opportunity to earn their own wages and gain independence, all while educating other women on the importance of feminine hygiene. We hope our film leaves a lasting effect on our audience, compelling them to take action.
Our non-profit, The Pad Project, serves as a resource for people looking to purchase and disseminate pad machines worldwide. For anyone interested in joining our journey, visit thepadproject.org for more information.
What’s next for you?
I fell in love with documentary filmmaking after this project so I’m definitely seeing more docs in my future. I’m also working on developing my first narrative feature, which I’m very excited about! Whether I’m making docs or narrative films, I just know that it has to be with purpose. Activism will always be at the root of my work.
How has NFFTY impacted your life?
There really isn’t another festival like NFFTY. It’s an infectiously spirited and supportive environment. The second you enter, it’s evident that the people running the show are doing it for all the right reasons.
I was able to make some lasting relationships with filmmakers when I attended in 2016. I remember when I screened my film Madaran, there were about a thousand people in the audience. I’ve never had a crowd that large at any festival! I’m forever grateful to the NFFTY team for their continued support and I hope to return in the future.