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Beautiful People: Rayka Zehtabchi, Director + Filmmaker

By Alyssa Shapiro

It was 25-year-old Rayka Zehtabchi’s very first project out of film school that won the filmmaker her first Oscar. In her acceptance speech, in which many young women might find themselves mortified, Zehtabchi talked about her period. But it made perfect sense: the Oscar-winning documentary she directed, Period. End of Sentence., is about empowering young women in India to take control of their own bodies, shed the stigma around menstruation, and create and provide access to basic sanitary products. “For me, filmmaking, the purpose of it really is to take down walls and to educate people,” says Zehtabchi. “But to do it not by feeding people medicine, but by sharing character and art with audiences.”

WATCH HER STORY:

 

Alyssa Shapiro: Do you have any mantras, anything you repeat to yourself when you need to feel your best?

Rayka Zehtabchi: I talk to myself a lot like in my head, but I definitely have been on a kick to try and keep things feeling very positive at all times. The life of a freelance filmmaker can be really challenging sometimes, because 90% of the time you’re hustling to try to make things happen, and you’re hearing a lot of “no,” and it can get you down sometimes. I think it’s really important to be positive throughout the process and remember that life is not just about filmmaking. But you can also take a moment and be kind to yourself, and take care of yourself mentally as well.

AS: How do you like to wind down or make sure you’re taking care of yourself?

RZ: Some of the things I like to do to wind down… sometimes I go to the jacuzzi [laughs] if I’m really feeling like it. Or look at dog videos, and photos of puppies. I really just want a dog, so it feels like I’m an inch closer to getting a dog if I’m doing that. I love to delve into a really good movie. A lot of times I’m watching movies to study them, and to find a reference for something I’m working on, but sometimes when you get to shut off your brain and watch a movie because you want to watch it, it can be really soothing and relaxing. I love to do face masks sometimes with my boyfriend—it’s really fun and kind of a nice way to wind down while we’re watching a movie.

AS: I went to film school and I remember how that momentarily ruined movie watching for me. I became so critical instead of just enjoying the story. Did that happen to you?

RZ: Totally! I wouldn’t say it ruined movie watching for me, but it changed the way that I watch movies. It’s harder to enjoy a lot of films now because you’re critical about so many different aspects of the film that you’re watching. I can’t shut my brain off and just enjoy what I’m watching if I have a problem with the cinematography or it’s not the way that I would do it [laughs]. But it does make you appreciate a great film even more than I ever would have, because I know that all these elements in the film are really working. So it feels all the more powerful to me.

AS: Are there any films that you wish you’d directed?

RZ: I have a really eclectic taste in movies; a lot of the movies that I love are movies that I probably would never direct. But also, I had never directed a documentary and didn’t think I would, so, you know. I grew up loving Lord of the Rings; I remember writing in my diary things about Frodo Baggins… literally I identify as a hobbit [laughs] I’m like five feet tall, so… And also I think the Shire is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.

I love a lot of historical dramas, like The King’s Speech, I think it’s a perfect movie. I do really appreciate the way the camera moves and how every aspect of the filmmaking is built and constructed around this one character and his mental state. I love Iranian films—Asghar Farhadi is one of my favorite directors, he’s a two-time Oscar winner. He directed A Separation and The Salesman. That’s more in line with my directing style. They’re perfect movies; they’re so simplistic in how they’re made, but the storytelling and the characters are really dynamic and complex, much like real life.

AS: When you made your first film, did you know that’s what you wanted to do with your life?

RZ: The first film I made is a music video called “I Hurt Too,” and I was about 15, in high school. I had just discovered my high school film program, and they really encouraged me to make a film and submit it to their film festival. So I got a camera, I got my dad and my sister who’s an actress, and I put together this music video that follows three different couples: an interracial couple; and interreligious couple; a homosexual couple. It follows them as they deal with their adversities. Now I cringe when I watch it, [laughs] but it’s really interesting to watch and see how some of the themes that I focused on when I was 15 years old are similar to the themes that I still focus on now at 25 years old, ten years later.

AS: Yeah, you just keep expanding and growing into different versions of yourself.

RZ: Totally! And visually, too. I was shooting it, and it sucked, but it was still organic, authentic, hand-held, the same way I still like to shoot. I just have a boyfriend who’s a DP so he shoots really well now [laughs]. One of the best, in my opinion.

 

AS: Can you talk about the sense of activism that goes with the documentary—where did that sense of responsibility to spread awareness come from?

RZ: I think I’ve always been really driven and motivated by social action. I’ve always thought that as an artist and a creator, whether I be an actor or a filmmaker or I do a career that’s entirely different, somehow I have a responsibility as a citizen to carry out some sort of social action and to really use my tool of filmmaking as a means to educate people.

Even in my first narrative short film that I directed, Madaran, an Iranian short film, I made it my first year in college for very little money, and I rounded up my classmates to make the film, but the film ultimately focuses on Islamic Sharia law, and one woman’s right to decide whether or not to executive the man who killed her son. And the power, in that instance, was given to her. I found that to be very interesting because a woman has the power to decide whether or not a man lives in this particular situation. For me that was like, oh my gosh, I have an opportunity to educate people about a part of Islam that I didn’t even know about before I made this film. That felt like a good opportunity to spread awareness.

And Period. End of Sentence. of course is another exceptional opportunity to spread awareness about a topic that’s taboo not only in India, or other countries, but in the United States as well. For me, filmmaking, the purpose of it really is to take down walls and to educate people. But to do it not by feeding people medicine, but by sharing character and art with audiences.

AS: Are you still working with the Pad Project, the organization that launched Period. End of Sentence?

RZ: Yes, and right now we’re restructuring the organization, because it blew up after the film was released on Netflix, and after the Oscars—we never expected it to be so big!—to see how much we can expand the Pad Project all over the world, and raise money for more pad machines.

AS: What was it like working with young women on this film? Very young, like women in high school?

RZ: It was my favorite part of this film. The young women in Los Angeles and also the young women in India who would ultimately be running the machine. It was one of my favorite things because innately you have this connection with them—I’m a young woman myself, I mean I graduated from college a few years ago. I felt like we could really speak one another’s language, even if I couldn’t speak Hindi.

AS: How did working on the film change your own views of menstruation?

RZ: It 100% affected my own mindset towards menstruation. I would never imagine in a million years going up on stage at the Oscars and talking about period in any way [laughs] never. In fact, before I even started working on the film, six months before, I was still a student at USC, buying a box of tampons. And there was a male clerk, and he was the only one in the store. I bought the tampons and was mortified, I just wanted to get out of there. That to me is a great example of how far I’ve come as a woman, just owning my period, owning the fact that I’m a woman and it’s okay if we have to use pads and tampons. Our periods really make us strong in a lot of ways.

AS: What does it mean to live beautifully to you? In your thoughts and actions?

RZ: I love that question. I love it because I struggle to answer it. I have so many responses. What it means to live beautifully through my thoughts and actions? I think women are beautiful because of how strong we are and yet how fragile and sensitive we are. That’s something I learned from my mom, from my dad, I see it in my sister. I grew up to be strong but also be very emotional and in touch with other people. I think that sort of empathy is really beautiful, and I think if we all had that, if we all were somehow in touch with that, the world would be a much more beautiful place.

Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy