At 40 years old, filmmaker Rachel Judkins decided it was finally time to confront her hang-ups around talking about her period.
It’s easy to imagine that everything you could say about periods has already been said. About Bloody Time!, an entry in this year’s collection of Loading Docs short documentaries, holds up a mirror to the fact that many of us still carry a lot of shame about this monthly intrusion into our lives. And as I found, as someone who has broadcast my most intimate secrets on the subject to a few thousand people on a podcast aptly named On The Rag, there was yet more for me to discover – namely, how unique each person’s journey is.
About Bloody Time! is an intimate look at one woman’s relationship with her menstrual cycle, made by first-time director Rachel Judkins. It’s honest, self-deprecating, surprisingly fresh in its approach, and explores a lot in eight minutes.
This year’s Loading Docs theme was “revolution”.
“I was aware that there is this menstrual revolution going on in the world – people are starting to talk about it, and you can get way better period products, and people are addressing period poverty,” Judkins told me. “But then I was really aware that revolution wasn’t happening for me.
“I’ve always been a bit weird about my period, had a weird relationship with it. I’ve never given it much thought, I’ve always just dealt with it and pretended it wasn’t really there.
“And while there’s a lot more being discussed in academic or theoretical circles, especially about period poverty, I didn’t see much of people sharing their own personal experience with it. So I thought, that needs to be done to break some of the stigma around it.”
It was surprising to hear her say that she felt unable to talk about it. I’ve known the bubbly film-maker since high school, and one thing she’s not is shy or prudish – she’s always perfectly happy to initiate a skinny dip or speak openly about her sex life.
It was another high school friend, Linda Hughes, who produced the film and gave Judkins the idea of putting herself in it. “At first I was like, fuck no, I can’t even talk about it to my husband! She was saying, you know, ‘you’re so open and accessible. If anyone was going to do it, it would be you’.
“She’s right, I usually don’t have a filter, so I had to ask myself: why do I have a filter about this?’”
As anyone who’s asked themselves the same question can attest, the answer is fairly obvious. We’re taught from a young age to keep it to ourselves.
The parts where About Bloody Time! really tells a new story are when Judkins discusses the topic with the people she loves, starting with her mum. In the film they discuss their feelings about their own experiences for the very first time.
“We talked for a full hour without even taking a breath, for the first time since I got my period and she explained the nuts and bolts of it. Given how hard it was to start the conversation, it was really easy to talk about once that barrier was down. It was great. One of the things I took away from it that you don’t see in the documentary is that she had really similar experiences to me, really heavy periods, really bad PMS and quite a lot of anxiety around accidents. And I never knew that! Having that conversation just made me feel way more normal.”
A memory that Judkins shares with her mother is the terror of having to wear a white school uniform on formal occasions at high school (Kings College in Auckland). “Sometimes I would wear a pad and a tampon and go to the bathroom every hour just to check,” she tells her. Judkins now associates that time in her life with having the constant companion of fear.
While a lot of us are happy to talk candidly about the subject with our friends, and find it cathartic to do so, it can be harder to do so around the cis men in our lives. The documentary also shows Judkins having a frank and emotional conversation with her husband, Pete, about how she feels when she has her period. “It’s so much harder to talk to your partner about it. In the documentary he asks me why, and I don’t know! Maybe it’s because it’s your vagina, and you want them to think it’s this pretty little package with a bow that they want to visit. But Pete’s literally watched me birth a baby out of my vagina, he’s seen the full animal kingdom situation go down, but yet I was still scared to talk to him about this.”
She says she’s not sure he fully understood what it’s like for her – the pain, the overwhelming emotions – but she thinks “something got through”.
“He was such a good sport about it,” she said. “And I’m much more open now about how I’m feeling because of my period, and he has been giving me a lot more hugs, which is nice.
“He was worried he was going to come across as a total dick because to an extent, he is representing all men in this situation. But I said, ‘you’re a big part of my life and I’ve never talked to you about this stuff before, so get in there’. And he did. And he looks really hot on camera, too.”
Interestingly, while there’s blood aplenty splashed across the frames of About Bloody Time!, menstrual blood is explicitly banned on Facebook, so Judkins didn’t include any of the real stuff as it would restrict the audience of the film. “I actually shot a lot of blood, but we’re not there yet. In some ways I feel like I’ve let down the team by not putting any in.”
She conceded that the bigger picture is that the world is not designed to take into account that half the population hides sometimes debilitating pain, anxiety and regular heightened sensitivity. The school that thought it was appropriate to dress teenaged girls in white, Judkins thought, serves as a fairly apt metaphor for the western world’s attitudes to menstruation. “That something so obvious to half the population can be completely missed by the other, dominant half.
“The school motto, even after they let girls in, was ‘virtus pollet’, which means ‘manliness prevails’,” she laughed.
Judkins is hoping that the experience of making the film, in which her son and daughter also had a lot of involvement, will normalise the subject in a way that it wasn’t for her or her mother’s generation. “Linda’s daughter, she’s eight, she’s now made all these little red stains in the undies of her dolls. That’s making it normal, just talking about it, not whispering.”
“At the start I thought I’d just make a film for the people that bleed, but after having my husband and my son involved, my hope is that people will share more, and maybe show this to their male partners or their brothers, and start a conversation.”