The Whistler Film Festival continues to amaze me year after year with the variety of new films it attracts, period. The films that are represented can sometimes act as a beacon for attention to a social issue, period. Diversity and inclusivity are key in producing a well rounded event even if the subject matter is about the female period. Sensitive issues on film can help bring urgency to the forefront by using the screen as a podium to spread that message that has remained coiled up in a can much too long. The subject on the females silent war on the period battlefield has gone unnoticed and unanswered for too long. When someone’s quality of life is impacted due to poor access to menstrual supplies, that’s a problem we should all be concerned with. As men, we take much for granted but women do not have the same luxury. Every month there is a menstrual cycle that requires planning and supplies. A few X’s on the calendar and we’re out of the woods, right? It looks good on paper but life is not complete without conflict. If you are not privileged, a schoolgirl or live in an undeveloped country those few X’s on the calendar can be hell on earth.
Filmmakers that take up the challenge of shining a light on concerning issues that result in change should qualify for the Nobel because they are game changers and society shapers. I personally have so much respect and admiration for the filmmaker that can impact society like a shot of espresso. We can become too complacent micro managing our lives and others to notice the world around us and the issues falling on deaf ears. The art of the documentary reminds us of the ones living outside the bubble, slipping through the cracks and feeling silent and invisible. We see you.
Rebecca Snow is one such filmmaker that doesn’t shy from social issues. She directed Pandora’s Box, which captures the epidemic of period poverty and the need for global period justice. The problem reaches from Namibia to India to Scotland to North America. The lack of access and education around menstruation has created enormous barriers for those who menstruate, adding yet another layer of oppression for women, complicating feminist and #MeToo movements. The film had its World Premiere at Whistler Film Festival on December 6 at 4PM. I spoke with Rebecca prior to the premiere to talk about this so-called taboo subject that we need to educate ourselves on.
“Having had a look at your film history, I see that you’ve done primarily documentaries/TV.”
“I do documentaries mainly, TV so far. I do a lot of broadcast docs. My last doc was a feature length broadcast doc for the History Channel and this is my second feature length documentary.”
“What is it that attracts you to a story that compels you to get involved?”
“A lot of times it’s characters but in this case it was really the subject matter. I’ve done a lot of films about history, so often it’s a period of history or fighting women. My last film was about survivors of the Holocaust. With this film, it was the subject matter; when we went into Media One Creative and the producers had pitched the film to me I thought it sounded like an amazing project and absolutely wanted to do it.”
“Was it the ground breaking/ untouched subject that intrigued you the most in getting involved?”
“I think so, I think it was such a surprising thing to hear about and something a lot of people had never considered and it needed to be brought to peoples attention; this is an issue around the world. It was also the idea that I couldn’t believe it was happening and as an educated person I couldn’t believe this was happening to menstruators all over the world. It made me question why I’m paying tax on my menstrual products (not in Canada) and how infuriating that is. Lets get this story out there.”
“When you were determining the people to talk to, how did you narrow down those subjects?”
“There were people that were very clear to me from the start that should be some of the principal voices. One was Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, who is an American lawyer and activist, that wrote the bible on the subject, Periods Gone Public. She’s a real force and based in New York. She’s doing a lot for period equity in the US around the launch of a tampon tax and going state by state. I knew that she would be a confident voice in the film. When we went to Africa we worked with a lot of organizations such as FEMME International who really helped us connect with some of the people who are very much impacted by period poverty and lack of access to menstrual products and lack of menstrual education. On one hand you’ve got Jennifer Weiss-Wolf trying to change policy and on the other you’ve got girls on the ground in Africa who’ve been impacted and to me, is the heart of this film. It’s heartbreaking when you see young Helen in the village who can’t go to school because she doesn’t have any menstrual supplies. There’s a lot to cover but narrowing it down I really wanted to bring the issue to not just developing world but to our doorstep; Toronto, New York and London also has its issues. One in every 10 girls in the UK struggle to afford menstrual supplies. That was very shocking to me and I wanted everyone watching the film to realize this isn’t just a situation in villages in Uganda, Kenya or in Mumbai, it’s an issue in London, in Toronto.”
“When you take on a new project, do you often have an outline/template in mind for your approach?”
“I often do but this one was a little different. We’d already shot some stuff in New York and India. This documentary was very much an organic process because it’s not the classic doc production format. It was very much Diva International who funded this documentary and came up with the idea of getting this social issue to light; let’s try and do something and film a bit of stuff, maybe release some shorts. It very quickly evolved into becoming a serious feature documentary, that’s when I was brought in. There was some stuff in the can that I was able to play with in edit but then I got to flesh out the rest and piece it together. I do often have a vision and coming into this I began structuring that vision but this was such a scrolling subject and was quite daunting; where do you start and where do you stop? We filmed in 6 countries and I wanted it to be character driven rather than just talking heads. I like to revisit people and capture their arc. These people have come from places of experience with the movement and have natural empathy. You see that arc and I think you get to see that in the characters as we revisit them several times throughout the film, which was important to me.”
“When you made the film what had surprised you the most as you pursued further?”
“I was pretty surprised by all the taboos and stigmas around menstruation, particularly in India. Some of the ridiculousness around the things you can or can’t do when you’re menstruating. It’s a huge barrier to try and break through the issues of the unfairness and injustice around it. Women weren’t allowed into temples if they were menstruating. I think there’s even a temple in India where you have to walk through an x-ray machine, which is ridiculous. Another thing that really surprised me was talking to some of the incarcerated women that we interviewed in the Bronx in New York. The horror stories they had about the lack of supplies and lack of dignity. It’s a human rights issue in state prisons. Federally, while making the film a law had passed in the US that now provides limitless personal supplies. Topeka Sam was an amazing force and also a formerly incarcerated women and activist for women’s rights in prison. She was a big part in getting the bill pushed through. That was really shocking.”
“Would you like to see your film in institutions to evoke change?”
“I think they’d love that. I think Diva International would really be behind that. It’s why they made the film in the first place, to make change happen. There’s a really amazing essay by Gloria Steinem called If Men Could Menstruate. I highly recommend it, she hits the nail on the head.”
“Did you have any reservations before taking on this project?”
“No, but… the only question I had was, how much of Diva International products I’d have to include in the film. The producers came back to say there was no expectation. As a documentary filmmaker, impartiality is very important, so that was the only thing I needed to clear up. It was great, I had a lot of creative freedom and because it wasn’t a broadcast I wasn’t restricted to the length.”
“How long did it take to shoot all the footage?”
“I think it was a year and a half including the edit.”
“Did you bring a small team with you to other countries?”
“In some cases I brought a small team and in other cases I hired locally. I’m very proud to say that we hired female crew-members everywhere. We really made a conscious effort. I worked some really amazing female camera operators, DOP’s, Sound people. I’m used to working on the road with a bunch of dudes, so this was really nice.”
“Is Whistler the first premiere of this film?”
“It is, yes.”
“It’s a great time for this film to come out. We’re seeing a movement for more inclusivity which should help push the film.”
“One of things important to us was to include the transgendered community. We interviewed a transgendered man in London to speak about menstruating as a transgendered man. Although he’s been taking hormones for years, once and awhile if he doesn’t take them at the right time, he can either get a period or menstrual pain. It’s mentally struggling for him He’s the first one to speak out about it and it was an interesting interview.”
“When you were directing the documentary, what types of truths were you hoping to uncover/reveal?”
“I think at first we wanted to look at the way periods are regarded; places like India where there’s taboos and stigmas and what impact that has on schoolgirls in India. In the film we say that there is a complete lack of education around menstruation in India, there’s nothing in the public schools about menstrual care. The organizations take it upon themselves to get the word out. We started out thinking that we’ll be looking at schoolgirls in Africa and how it impacts them and the lack of access to supplies and then it became very apparent that we need to start looking at some of the people coming up with solutions. We had met an interesting and amazing woman in Kenya named Christine that had herself experienced period poverty as a 12 yr. old girl and had to drop out of school. She went into prostitution to be able to afford menstrual products/pads. She is now part of the solution and is making reusable pads with a large group of women and supplying them to schoolgirls. So that is really the message; the people that are most impacted by it and the people that are coming up with solutions. Ideally, the people that have had their own experience have a reason to come up with solutions because they’ve once been impacted by it.”
In Vancouver it was recently legislated that all the public schools offer free menstrual products. In Canada 1 out of 7 girls have to stay home because they struggle to afford menstrual products and start falling behind. It’s something they don’t talk about so this film is saying ‘lets normalize it and talk about it. It’s not a big deal.’
Rebecca adds, “I think this film was intended on being part of the movement. Diva International set out to document the movement on one hand, to record the history of it and the impact but also to contribute to it and give it momentum. The idea of this film being seen by as many people as possible means that this film could be part of the solution.”
“In the countries you visited, did it seem that some are miles away in finding solutions?”
“It’s interesting, the first country to introduce the idea of free pads in schools was Kenya. They were way ahead of the UK and Scotland. I think once it starts happening in the EU it will go pretty fast. British Columbia and Toronto (school boards) have passed it. One of the things a Kenya politician had said to us was, although it’s one thing to pass legislation but it’s another to see it happening. How do you get to all those rural places? That’s been the biggest issue in Kenya; it passed 7 years ago but seeing it happen has not unraveled like I hoped it would. It’s a constant struggle.”
“Do you think it’s a matter of the issue not being taken seriously enough?”
“I think it is the case, even in the US. I had no idea there was a tampon tax there but there isn’t one on Viagra or Head and Shoulders shampoo. It would be free to everyone if menstruation impacted men.”
Rebecca is planning to do a panel discussion about the film the next day as part of The Women in Focus.
Pandora’s Box was honoured with the Special Jury Award presented by The Alliance of Women Film Journalists and received an honourable mention for World Documentary Award by the Whistler Film Festival awards jury for its eye-opening examination of a challenging topic, societal significance and social impact. The jury also gave a Special mention to PANDORA’S BOX: LIFTING THE LID ON MENSTRUATION directed by Rebecca Snow for its cheeky title to its unrelenting (and deserving) criticism of modern society’s continuing contempt toward women, Rebecca Snow’s PANDORA’S BOX dares to confront the myriad, retrograde attitudes toward menstruation in virtually every corner of the world. The doc gives new meaning to the term “Scarlet Letter” and affirms the importance of womanhood.