Producer Guneet Monga is no stranger to Oscar nominations. One of the only people from the Indian film industry who can make that claim, she is currently being lauded for her 26-minute documentary Period. End Of Sentence. – which she executive produced – receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Short at the 91st Academy Awards. In 2010, Kavi, another short produced by Monga was nominated in the Best Short (Live Action) category at the Oscars. It focused on the issue of child labour in India.
Period. End Of Sentence. is the story of women in Hapur in western UP, focusing on their experience with the installation of a pad machine in their village. It’s about the taboo of menstruation and how girls have to drop out of school when they get their period. And yet, perhaps what’s most intriguing is the story behind the film. Monga says it was “almost like a movie in itself”.
The film began as an idea in a classroom between a group of teenage girls aged 12-14 and their English Teacher in Oakwood School in Los Angeles. “They were very moved by stories of how there are girls in India who actually drop out of school because of menstruation and they wanted to do something about it. So they held bake sales and raised money to donate one pad machine to a village with the help of Action India, an NGO.” said Monga. She added “They wanted to have more of an impact and decided to make a movie on the effect one pad machine can have and see where it goes. So they started a Kickstarter campaign and raised 40,000 dollars to make a movie and hired a young USC graduate Rayka Zehtabchi to direct it.”
The mother of one of the girls was Stacey Sher, producer of many of Quentin Tarantino‘s movies. “She’s someone I’ve known closely for a while and she got in touch with me and told me her daughter and her friends are trying to make a movie in India and asked if I could help.”
Monga spoke to us about the rise of documentaries in India, what goes into Oscar campaigning, and her experience of being a member of the Academy. Edited excerpts:
Both this film and your previous short film that went to the Oscars, Kavi feature foreign directors making a socially-driven film focused on poorer communities in India. Is there a specific kind of film the Academy seems to veer towards when it comes to India?
I wouldn’t say that. I think this is a very heart-warming story of a winner. If you see the film it’s about a girl wanting to be in the police academy and not having any limitations to be able to do that. And especially not menstruation, that doesn’t hold a woman back at any front whatsoever. So I wouldn’t say that that is the general view. I think everyone around the world is extremely conscious not to stereotype. This is just a story with a big heart.
Are Indian filmmakers not making these kinds of films?
The documentary space in India isn’t really that big. Also, to raise funds for documentaries isn’t that easy. There’s a whole structure in place for raising money for these kinds of films in the West. But if you have a fiction short you can surely raise money for that in India – that space has really opened up.
What kind of impact do you hope a film like this has?
We’ve actually registered an NGO with this film to be able to raise more money. We recently did a fundraiser for Action India…so with this film going further I hope we can raise more money and make more pad machines and create more awareness. The idea is to make it a self-sustainable model for them which can make money and also promote menstrual hygiene.
What do you think the scope for documentaries, or shorts for that matter, is in India right now? In terms of distribution and finding an audience, is it easier today than it was earlier?
Absolutely, I think shorts are doing extremely well given the internet growth and I think soon we will see with growth in documentaries as well with a high volume of digital players taking an interest. Wild Wild Country was hugely successful in India and I think we will experience more documentary viewing because they’re more available. So I think the market is opening up.
The film was partially funded through Kickstarter. How viable is crowdfunding as a source of financing for these kinds of films today?
It’s absolutely viable, I mean I crowd-financed Peddlers and Haraamkhor. If you look at Wishberry or Ketto they’ve done so well in India. If you have to make a short you should get out there and explore crowdfunding. You build a community and a team that’s rooting for you, watching your movie and also funding it.
How important is campaigning in securing an Oscar nomination like this and what kind of campaigning is required?
It’s all very systematic and now as an Academy member, I have more of a view into it. I think what helps is film festivals and awards. For Period. End Of Sentence. it went through Cleveland International Film Festival, it won at AFI (American Film Institute) and so many festivals big and small across the US and the world that voters are constantly seeing it. All that credibility helps when you’re finally at the academy. The process is pretty democratic, links are sent to all the voters around the world…so I think a year-round strategy is a far better way of accessing the Academy.
Is that where you feel Indian films lose out in being taken seriously as Oscar contenders? Would India stand a better chance with a better understanding of campaigning?
Yeah, we just don’t know how to do it. Firstly, we select our movies very late – in September. Also, the process of selection is pretty obscure, and I think the films that should be selected are the ones that work at festivals because that’s where word travels and you get the first round of appreciation. Secondly, films which have an American distributor do better because you are going through an American awards system and that’s a system that people there know how to navigate.
So, to sit here and dream that one Indian film will go and get selected and somebody out there will be able to campaign makes no sense. There are 100 other countries doing the exact same thing that don’t make it to the top 5. You need a certain education on how to do this. I’ve been very vocal that we should have a selection process and committee that’s more aware of the process if we plan to get to the Oscars.
As a recently appointed member of the Academy what’s been the experience like so far? Has anything surprised you?
It’s been so amazing, I’ve gotten to see so many films, I’ve gotten the entire foreign language catalogue and it’s just so special. I’ve also gotten to know the Academy and they really want to do more work in India in terms of outreach and being more inclusive. We’re having a lot of conversations with them about this, so it’s been great.