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 public: voice finding your voice  Giovanna Chesler
     
. (Period): The End of Menstruation?: What are the risks and benefits, both culturally and medically?  

  Period: The beginning of a conversation, or the end of menstruation?

I met Giovanna Chesler at the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research conference, June 2-4, 2005, in Boulder, Colorado, where here documentary Period: The End of Menstruation? was screened, and asked her to tell us about the making of Period.

 
  Giovanna Chesler at SMCR conference I've thought about menstruation for the past ten years. My engagement with the issue began as an undergrad anthropology student, collecting oral histories from women and girls about their first periods. Then I started collecting jokes and myths from young kids—tales of blood running down girls' legs in school, extreme embarrassing stories. I worked menstrual blood imagery into a feature script that I am still writing, but never considered a film solely on this topic.

Then, my friend told me that she had not had her period in three years. She was 28, the same age that I was, and I could not believe that someone could make that choice. I asked a gynecologist friend about it and learned that many gynecologists were prescribing birth control non stop so that women wouldn't have their periods at all, and that there were other shots and pills in development marketed for the same purpose—primarily for birth control, but then being used for convenience / freedom from periods. After more research I learned that periods on birth control aren’t periods at all because you are not ovulating. I had been on the pill for eight years and immediately went off of it when this information started coming to me.

The themes and issues addressed in Period have expanded from this introductory question of menstrual suppression. Through this topic, the film engages with gender, ‘normalcy’, body modification, and the many sides of the feminist “choice and freedom” discourse. The film taps into the many ways that women's bodies have been controlled and contained by the medical industry: this relates to issues of PMS, post partum depression, Hormone Replacement Therapies, etc. Women and men support menstrual suppression for various reasons: convenience and freedom, choice, and popular hunter gatherer models. Young girls, those who are mentally challenged, people in the military, poor women—these groups are also targeted with menstrual suppression logic. Then there are pro menses folks, some of whom use essentializing argumentation—bleeding is what it means to be a woman. And others who are pro menses believe that there are many untapped understandings on menstruation. They connect menstruation to time, bring in humor and forms of celebration, cleansing, connections between body and mind.

I am motivated to make this film by the young girls who are taught to feel ashamed and scared of their bodies because of menstruation. As a young girl, I was told very little about menstruation and only started bleeding at age 16 because I was severally underweight. My period would come and go for months at a time and I barely noticed its absence. When a girl does not understand her body, how does that negatively effect her sense of self? She is taught shame, embarrassment, and the need to control and contain herself. These have lasting effects on both individual and societal levels. There are so many other things involved in maintaining the subordinate position of women in this world, but the negative associations with menstruation, for me, play a significant role in all of this.

I interviewed a variety of medical practitioners—several gynecologists, psychologists, nurses, natural healers, and endocrinology researchers. Probably thirty people overall from the medical side of things on top of other research and reading outside of the interviews. Then we interviewed numerous individuals—10 of whom appear in the film, and relate personal experiences which fall on the cultural end of the menstruation issue. I believe that the medical information is complex and can change during the life of the film, but the cultural issues—what it means to bleed both mentally, emotionally, and in terms of a person's lived experience, are equally complex and compelling.

What if we learn that menstrual suppression is completely healthy and valid? Right now evidence does not suggest this, but if it did would that necessitate suppression?

Not necessarily—bleeding and ovulation have other meanings. It was my goal to craft a film that equally weighed the medical issues and the cultural issues (understanding of course that medicine and ‘science’ operate within and are crafted by a cultural framework.) So, in the film, the ‘value’ given to medical practitioners and researchers is equal to the experience of a menstruator, or of someone who has chosen to stop bleeding.

Marina Shoupe, an artist and filmmaker from San Diego, began working on Period with me from the beginning—she has been a tireless researcher and great Associate Producer. Many of the participants were found through Marina's research and efforts. She came with me on some shoots—I would work the camera, she recorded sound, and she has done some sound editing, and last minute support work. When I could afford it and the scene required it, I hired a cinematographer and sound recordist which would make up a crew of 3–4 people. Largely though, I shot the film by myself and conducted interviews one on one with participants. I like to work with 16mm and use a Bolex camera in a non-synch way. The material the participants provided was most meaningful when s/he and I were alone together and when I shot footage separately from sound. The topic necessitated this approach—menstruators generally discuss bleeding in private conversations. This has been a challenge though, in terms of piecing the film together. The style of shooting and the sound work are very different between scenes.

I edited the film by myself with input from colleagues, particularly Zeinabu irene Davis, an experienced and remarkable filmmaker, who serves as my primary mentor / head cheerleader on this project. Often, she and Marina keep me going. Lisa Cartwright has also had a remarkable influence on this film, as has David Benin. Both of these individuals are film scholars and science studies scholars. They challenged the project at key moments, pushing the film in new directions and encouraged a more thorough and complex engagement with the subject. Two women at Price Charities made this film possible financially. They were moved by my first documentary, BeauteouS: Stephanie, and asked about my next project. We spoke about Period for about a year before they committed money through their foundation to the project. They believed in my subject and the goals behind it, which are to address the health and wellbeing of young women. Presently, many scholars around the country have offered support for the film by programming preview screenings on their campuses for the Fall. I see these screenings as fundraising opportunities and ways to legitimate the film during its completion. My goal is a major festival premiere and television broadcast, with community and classroom screenings.

I have shown the film to several of the participants at this point. Their feedback has been helpful and meaningful and overall positive. When I have been exhausted, out of money, and nearly tapped out emotionally, they keep me motivated through their vision and stories. Sometimes documentary filmmaking can feel very selfish—you ask people to share their limited time and extremely personal information with you knowing that you can rework it in the editing room. I try very hard to maintain and support their point of view, with an awareness that my point of view is always influencing the edit.

I felt very uncomfortable filming with Makeda, one of the participants, in the hospital after her hysterectomy. Then a friend reminded me that I am not just taking, but I am giving to people as well. Makeda needed me there as much as I needed to be there for the project. She chose to invite me there and let me into her hospital room.

My film became prescient as a follow up to The Pill and a Canadian doc Under Wraps: menstrual suppression is a new marketing technique for hormonally based birth control methods. Within 9 months of starting Period, menstrual suppression was everywhere in the mass media because of the release of Seasonale, a pill that generates four bleeding episodes each year, instead of the usual 12. Is Menstruation Obsolete by Elsimar Coutinho (who developed Depo Provera) was recently translated into English and Susan Rako's book No More Periods? had just come out in response. It seemed that the question of whether to stop bleeding was on many people's minds. This film continues the discussion that began in the mass media and tries to address specific forms of menstrual suppression, but opens up the topic to menstruation in general. Some of the issues addressed in this film have not appeared in menses films—particularly trans gender issues, and other forms of gender construction through and despite the body and menstruation. I also highlight several artists who work with menstruation and menstrual blood, those who are starting menstruation museums, and scholars who have researched menstruation and gynecology.

There is so much more to menstruation and there are compelling, complicated issues wrapped up in menses that go far beyond the embarrassing stories and fumbling with tampon applicators. In general, few conversations about menstruation go beyond our first periods. Menstruation can relate to sex, spirituality, politics, gender, history, psychology, health, art… that's all in Period, I hope!

Period: The End of Menstruation? makes a taboo subject public, but it is also meant to empower through education and inspire further research and engagement with the topic. Much of the film is structured around conversations between women and girls, where the issue is tossed and turned, both pro and con depending on an individual's story, research and understanding of their body. The film could be endless with the various threads that lead from the conversations women have on screen, but I hope that it functions as a beginning instead.

I am developing a website http://www.periodthemovie.com, which will have links to many organizations, sites and resources for further information on the topic.

Period is nearly complete and will be released to film festivals and broadcasters for exhibition. Preview screenings intended to generate funds and support for the completion of Period are ongoing and may be arranged through at production@g6pictures.com.

  Period: The End of Menstruation?



Giovanna Chesler



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A narrative and documentary filmmaker, writer, editor, and cinematographer, Giovanna Chesler is dedicated to producing films which explore social constructions of gender, beauty, identity, and sexuality. She is a San Diego based filmmaker and received an MFA in Cinema from San Francisco State University.

Giovanna is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Communication at the University of California San Diego. She teaches documentary production, sound production and manipulation, non-linear digital editing, and cinematography as well as documentary history and theory and feminist filmmaking. While finishing Period: The End of Menstruation?, Giovanna is in pre production on "Java", a narrative film dealing with addiction and memory loss.

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