Sundance 2022 Interview: Shaandiin Tome and Rayka Zehtabchi on a Rite of Passage in “Long Line of Ladies”

If Shaandiin Tome and Rayka Zehtabchi ever needed a reminder of how much work it takes to commemorate an important moment, all they needed to do was think about the film stock that was slipping away from them as they made “Long Line of Ladies.”

“We were just trying to swap magazines out to make sure that we’re able to capture like true production sound that’s as clean as possible, and that was a little bit of a challenge,” Zehtabchi says of the Sundance-bound short, shot on 16mm. “When you get everyone in a group together, everyone is sharing constantly.”

The kindling-like chemical alchemy of the celluloid was crucial in capturing the emotions to be found amongst the Karuk People in Northern California as they hold a Flower Dance ceremony, also known as a Ihuk, to honor Ahty Allen, a young woman of the tribe who has begun her first menstrual cycle, and the film acts as a follow-up to Zehtabchi’s Oscar-winning “Period. End of Sentence,” in which the director traveled to India to observe a female-run operation to supply women with affordable tampons, done largely off the grid in a society where women are made to feel shame for tending to their health needs. It couldn’t be any more different in McKinleyville where Ahty alerts her parents soon after she experiences her first period, setting into motion plans to give her a warm welcome into womanhood, a practice that had begun centuries earlier.

Although “Long Line of Ladies” is centered around one family, Tome and Zehtabchi are vague on names and stay back to take in as much of the gathering as possible when an entire community assembles around Ahty to lift her up in what could be an uncertain time but instead becomes a great source of pride. Putting in the work themselves to take in the full scope of the event, the filmmakers illuminate not only the inherent beauty of the Flower Dance, but the effort it takes to keep such traditions going and the power that comes from such collective action to instill confidence in the young. Glorious through and through, Tome and Zehtabchi have created something that can be passed along to future generations as well, starting this week with its online premiere as part of the Sundance Film Festival and recently the two spoke about how they were able to make the film in the midst of a pandemic and catching the small but telling details of the ceremony and those that put it on.

How did this come about?

Shaandiin Tome: A very kind e-mail by Rayka, and then after that, we met virtually before actually meeting each other, and we were working on this for a while and didn’t meet each other until we started shooting, so it was a lot of talking. It was good to get to know somebody that closely through Zoom.

Rayka Zehtabchi: A lot of vulnerable conversations, that’s the reality of the times that we’re working in. Even meeting the family, all of that was probably six months or so of just Zoom meetings. We went to do a location scout close to the shoot, but [preproduction] was all pretty much done online and [with] the power of social media, just reaching out to people via Messenger. [The idea of the film] started with The Pad Project, which I’m a part of as a board member, and it was a long time in the works, this idea of how can we find a story that was looking at more of the positive aspects of menstruation and to communities that are not shaming their girls the way that people would in “Period. End of Sentence” but rather supporting their girls and uplifting them at this time in their lives. We did research online and found Pimm Allen and her family and the Karuk coming-of-age ceremony, the Ihuk, and then contacted them. That’s where it started to take off.

Shaandiin Tome: Just being able to see a young indigenous woman during this time is really interesting, and how modernity plays a huge role in her life. Rayka and I talked about it a lot [where] a lot of people see Natives as having to choose one or the other, like they live in two worlds [where] they pick either to be a modern-day person or to be indigenous. And something that was so special about this whole entire family was that there was no choosing. It was a very beautiful weaving in and out of these different sections of their life and I think that goes to say for a lot of indigenous people in this day.

There’s a great conversation that unfolds between the mothers, talking about how they want to be able to give this generation what they weren’t able to experience themselves. Was that something that was naturally a part of this?

Shaandiin Tome: Yeah. I think if you talk to any Native family, generations is a huge conversation. Even just with my family, the way that most Native philosophies work, but specifically Diné, which is where I’m from, is that you think in front of you, behind you, beside you, around you, so everything about what you’re thinking is before you — futures and also past. That’s so integral to who they are as a people, and it definitely shows. It’s so amazing to see that in action, like we hardly even had to say anything when we were talking to them. They’re like, “Okay, go away. We’re just going to have our normal conversations,” so it was really cool that way.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Yeah, it’s so much a part of how the family and the larger spiritual community operates on a day-to-day basis. And it’s funny that you called that out [because] the men are constantly having these conversations [as well]. For us, we go, “Oh, men are having conversations around menstruation or preparing for this coming of age ceremony?” And it’s just assumed this is also their responsibility. It’s also the younger boys’ responsibility to play a part in this ceremony and play a part in helping Ahty’s transition into womanhood just as it is for Ahty and the young men in their time in their life, so it’s just really beautiful how everything [in the community] just weaved together.

You allude to what a sacred space that’s created with this ceremony is with how you’re often shooting at a distance – and shooting on film also brings its own magic. How did the style for the film come about?

Shaandiin Tome: The idea was to be observational and present without being intrusive, and that goes for a lot of the themes of our film, which is about how do we create a space that honors who the family is without like trying to infringe on like who they are. [The way] a lot of society today views indigenous people, [they] really want to extract and learn in a way that can be a bit harsh and abrasive towards like indigenous thought and ceremony, especially for Ahty’s ceremony where she’s blindfolded and it’s such an inward thing, so the idea was that we wanted to respect that and keep our distance while also seeing the beauty as it unfolded. Whether that was lingering on shots or keeping a distance, it was all about how do we respectfully go about this? And that really worked in our favor in creating an overall picture of the themes in the family in general.

Rayka Zehtabchi: And the reason for shooting on film organically folded into the idea that Shaandiin is talking about being respectful and not being intrusive. There were a lot of conversations around, do we shoot a documentary on 16mm film or do we not? Do we just shoot it digital? A fear going into it shooting it on film was, “Okay, we’re not going to be able to record everything that we see” – at least how I have been programmed over time [where] you want to have access and capture as much as you possibly can when you’re there. So it was a big learning experience for me to realize we don’t have the right to capture everything. This is for Ahty and the family to have and to experience, and film really made a big difference in that creative decision because you only have a finite amount. You really have to be kind of thoughtful and intentional in what you’re capturing, so it involved a lot of conversations with Pimm Allen and Ahty’s family and Ahty herself about what are the things that we can capture, and that kind of went hand in hand with this idea of shooting on 16mm.

You get that sense of intentionality just looking at what details are picked up to illustrate the family and by extension the community. What was it like figuring out how to set the scenes up?

Shaandiin Tome: A lot of that had to deal with the community as a whole and trying to capture the family in context to each other. There’s a lot of films that try to individualize and create something that feels like “this is our single character,” but what we were really striving for was allowing for this space for community and really showing things in context to each other, whether that was the house or driving to the ceremonial grounds, that allowed for deeper understanding [how] that drives the whole entire family. It’s really hard to capture because you get so involved too, [where] you’re like, “Oh, I just want to shoot this one thing,” and I think that was one great thing that Rayka and I had together because we were co-directing, was we’d be like bouncing off of each other and be like, “Wait, hold up. Let’s not shoot that. Let’s go over here [because] this amazing thing is happening,” so it was really beneficial to have somebody else there to bounce ideas off of.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Yeah, and when you mention the details, you think about the title of the film “Long Line of Ladies,”, [which] came from [the title of] a poem by Brian Tripp, Ahty’s uncle, and you walk through Pimm and Alme’s home and you realize on the walls, it’s just photographs of all these different generations of women who have gone through the ceremony and there’s a painting on the wall. Some of those things are just there. It’s not something that you have to plan for or force as long as you’re paying attention, and that beauty is just around the family and how they carry themselves.

The film has a beautiful score as well and I didn’t know Forrest Goodluck was a composer in addition to his many other talents, but how did he and Juan Kleban get involved in creating the music?

Shaandiin Tome: Yeah, Forrest is my boyfriend and he is an incredibly talented person. I did a film called “Mud” that played Sundance back in 2018 that he was in, and having an indigenous perspective on the music was so important to the film just because music is such a driving force and it also is so visceral, [where] it was like, how do we create the positive and uplifting [feeling] that we want to create while hearing what the family has to say. His friend Juan went to Berklee College of Music and we were very thankful to have them [work on the score] and it was a long time trying to figure out the process of it, but it was really beneficial to the film.

It came out so magnificently. What’s it like getting to the finish line with this?

Shaandiin Tome: It’s such a celebration. It’s been such a long process [with] its ups and downs, for sure, and now we’ve been able to really celebrate and I think that’s so amazing, especially for the family. We wish they could have gone to the actual festival.

Rayka Zehtabchi: Yeah, one thing that really means a lot to us is that they’re very proud of the film, and we know that it’s going to have just a really big benefit for people in their community and other indigenous people, so we’re just really excited about that.

“Long Line of Ladies” will screen virtually as part of the Sundance Film Festival‘s shorts program, available to watch from January 20th-30th.