UBC student’s short film, Wash Your Hands of My Blood, breaks boundaries at the ConnectHER Film Festival

Third-year biology student and independent filmmaker Anahita Seraji’s short film, Wash Your Hands of My Blood, was awarded First Runner-up for the Judges’ Choice Award at the ConnectHER Film Festival.

The film was also nominated for awards under the Global Health and People’s Choice award categories.

The ConnectHER Film Festival where Seraji’s film was submitted is a festival for high school and university students to submit original works that focus on women’s issues. These issues include access to education, violence against women, poverty and body image.

Seraji started Wash Your Hands of My Blood after learning about period poverty in South Asia from a Plan International Canada representative. Alone in her bedroom, without a team or a camera, Seraji dreamt of making this idea become a reality.

“It was really, really difficult,” said Seraji. “The whole film was done in less than two months — the pre-production, the whole thing.”

Without a dedicated cast and crew, Wash Your Hands of My Blood would not have been able to happen.

A passionate affair

With a cast and crew of students passionate about combatting period poverty and child marriage, Seraji’s film was able to capture the hearts of voters internationally. Wash Your Hands of My Blood follows Mitra (Nixita Taneja), a young girl who stays home from school due to her period by the advice of her mother (Shriya Chamarty). Her father (Ziyaan Virji) notices this and decides to withdraw her from school and further, forces her into an arranged marriage.

Ziyaan Virji, a second-year Sauder student and the actor who plays Mitra’s father, was prompted to join the team for Wash Your Hands of My Blood due to his passion for ending period poverty. When Virji was 16, he founded an organization that works to provide access to menstrual care internationally, called For The Menstrator.

“I don't have any formal acting experience,” said Virji in an interview with The Ubyssey. “ I just wanted to see if I could help out in any capacity to make this project come to life.”

Aakanksha Sahu, the assistant producer and a script translator of Wash Your Hands of My Blood, also wanted to help the film come to fruition in any way she could. As a friend of Seraji, she could see the stresses of developing the film firsthand.

“[Seraji] would have a lot of self doubt and as a friend, I was trying to support her,” said Sahu. “I offered to help translate her piece … I provided creative advice [and] since I'm from India, I provided advice about what the place looks like, what the customs and traditions are [in] Indian weddings. I gave stories of my family.”

Sahu’s firsthand familial experience with child marriage was a driving force for her to be involved in the film. “My grandma was a child bride,” said Sahu.

“I wanted to promote my culture and my heritage and I originally didn't know that this would pop off like it did,” said Sahu. “I was just trying to help my friend and just help with things that I'm passionate about, for example, my culture and also set [development] and [the] building of costumes. I really like doing creative things, though originally [joining the film] was just to help my friend but, it really did blow up. I'm really grateful for that.”

The creative advice that Sahu shared with Seraji allowed for an atmosphere that emphasized teamwork.

“The film was built on whatever each person could contribute,” said Seraji.

Portraying the story of Mitra with authenticity was incredibly important to Seraji. That cast and crew members contributed to costuming and consulted the portrayal of marriage, according to Seraji. “I didn’t want it to be a western perspective of child marriage.”

Exposure is what first drew Nixita Taneja, a third-year theatre and psychology student at UBC, to Wash Your Hands of My Blood, but it was the connection to her own experiences that made her fall in love with the role of Mitra.

In an interview with The Ubyssey, Taneja outlined how periods — in general, and her period specifically — have been stigmatized in India especially through her boarding school experience.

“This one time, we were going on a hike with my school. They asked all the girls if we were on our period and I said ‘yes’ because I was. I was not allowed to go on the hike because we were going to go to a temple,” said Taneja. “That made me so upset … At the time I didn't understand [why I couldn’t go] and I still don't. I don't understand the reason why women aren't allowed to partake in the same activities [as they can] when they’re on their period.”

Besides wanting to amplify the message of Seraji’s film, Taneja also wanted to prove to herself and others that she can be an actor.

“I found this responsibility to show people that you can do whatever you want. You don't just have to have a concrete career or just focus on one subject and not be pursuing your dreams,” Taneja said.

Shriya Chamarty, a third-year UBC biology student and the actor who played Mitra’s mother, was drawn to Wash Your Hands of My Blood due to its cultural components.

“I was born in Edmonton, Alberta, so speaking languages like my mother tongue is not something that I’ve done with my friends and family a lot,” said Chamarty. “The story is also just really incredible.”

Creating community in one day

The filming for Wash Your Hands of My Blood happened over the course of one day. Before this day, none of the cast had met in person.

“We had to be very careful about where we filmed because of [COVID-19],” said Chamarty. “It was really challenging to get together in the first place.”

“I had to ensure that everyone was going to be safe during [COVID-19],” said Seraji. “Filming itself is such a huge challenge because of all the unpredictable things that can happen on set, but when you add a pandemic on top of that it's just a whole other world of unpredictable challenges that you have to conquer. I'm really grateful for the way it turned out, but it wasn't easy.”

Chamarty said that the Wash Your Hands of My Blood cast had to “go off of immediate chemistry” while filming. “We just had to [film] right away and hope for the best.”

Hoping for the best is also what Seraji and Sahu did while building the set. With a limited budget and resources, Sahu and Seraji had to get creative with their set building. Wash Your Hands of My Blood was filmed on UBC campus.

“[Anahita and I] were trying to set up a bed for the bedroom scene and we had no idea how to do it,” said Sahu. “Next to Orchard [Commons Residence], we found these logs that they leave out and we made the bed by picking up those logs and stacking them side by side.”

“It was just a really funny moment because neither me or Anahita had any idea what was going on or how it would turn out,” said Sahu.

Sahu remembers set development fondly. “We would just try to find sets and just make the most of what we could with the resources we had … There [were] a lot of insects around us and I remember just spending the day laughing and swatting flies, mosquitoes and spiders just trying to build this bed.”

Described by Seraji, Wash Your Hands of My Blood was filmed in “little nooks and crannies” across campus. Filming locations included Orchard Commons Residence, the Ponderosa Annexes and the wooden ‘C-Shore’ between the biology and chemistry buildings.

“Whoever I pitched the idea to was like, you're trying to turn Vancouver into India. It's impossible. It's the middle of the pandemic. You can't do it. It's impossible,” said Seraji. “It's really incredible how well the film turned out, given the circumstances like it was filmed right on campus, and yet it looks so good.”

Though the day before filming was hot and swarming with bugs, the day of filming was cold and raining.

“It was the coldest summer day possible,” said Taneja. “We have some behind the scenes photos [where] you see all of us huddled up in jackets in blankets.”

“It was raining so hard and we were walking all over campus to film,” said Chamarty.

In an interview with The Ubyssey, Chamarty recounted a scene featuring Taneja walking barefoot being filmed.

“There is a scene where Nixita had to have no shoes on and she was so cold. We were all wrapping her up in our sweaters and this is the first time I met her. We had to form a bond really quickly because I’m acting as her mother,” said Chamarty. “It was really cold.”

It takes a village

In November of 2021, Seraji was sitting through a two-hour virtual awards ceremony wondering if her film was good enough to win an award.

“I tend to underestimate the film itself because I feel like maybe these other films had a more difficult production,” said Seraji in an interview with The Ubyssey.

In the last ten minutes of the ceremony, Wash Your Hands of My Blood was announced as the first runner-up of the Judges’ Choice Award — an award that recognizes the best overall films of the festival.

Due to the COVID-19 restrictions at the time, the Wash Your Hands of My Blood team was not able to celebrate their win together however, they were able to celebrate regardless.

“It was just a passion project. We didn't really expect it to blow up … It was a very awe inspiring moment,” said Sahu.

After receiving the news of their win, Sahu was inspired, Taneja was proud and Chamarty called her mother to tell her the good news.

“Anahita texted me and she [said] we were the first runner up,” said Taneja. “I was just like, oh my god, this is so cool … Initially, it was just a vision and then it came to life and all of the hard work that went into it just paid off.”

While Seraji had always dreamed of winning an award with her film, it was still surreal to have that dream become a reality — and not just for her, but for her team as well

“The [number] of stories that have been shared and the filmmakers [are] so talented. The stories are so amazing and important. I feel quite honoured that our film managed to win first runner-up… It’s really important to see that other people also recognize the value of the film and how impactful it is,” said Seraji.

Seraji isn’t just proud of her team, but her team is proud of her, too.

“It was a huge honour working on something like this with such a powerful message,” said Virji. “It's nice to see how passionate [Seraji] was and I'm so glad she got the credit she deserves.”

YVR and beyond

Since being recognized as the first runner-up for the Judges’ Choice Award, Seraji has no plans on stopping filmmaking.

Seraji has been invited to accompany the ConnectHER team at the Sundance Film Festival, taking place in Salt Lake City, Utah from Thursday, January 20 to Sunday, January 30.

Due to the evolving travel restrictions due to the Omicron variant, Seraji will be unable to attend.

“For now, I'm really focused on making sure the rest of the team gets their exposure,” said Seraji. “I'm hoping to send it out to more film festivals … especially ones that are more focused on acting aspects so our actors get some exposure or cinematographers get some exposure.”

As for what’s next for Seraji, she is looking to make another film.

“This has put me on a path where film has become my voice for activism, especially when it comes to women's rights because it's such a pervasive issue,” said Seraji. “It's such a big deal and I [would] really love to keep on doing it.”