Long Line of Ladies – Teaser from Rayka Zehtabchi on Vimeo.

Valuing time-honored traditions and values while also adapting to contemporary customs and ideas is one of the most important ways societies can evolve and support gender equality amongst all of its citizens. The new documentary short, ‘Long Line of Ladies,’ is doing just that by not only breaking stigmas about female maturity throughout adolescence and young adulthood, but also the practices and celebrations within Indigenous families and communities.

The powerful, thought-provoking and important movie was co-directed by producer Rayka Zehtabchi and Shaandiin Tome. Zehtabchi is the first Iranian woman to have won an Oscar; she was recognized for her 2018 documentary short, ‘Period. End of Sentence,’ which supports and empowers women in India to shed the taboos surrounding menstruation.

‘Long Line of Ladies’ is having its World Premiere in the Short Film Program at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. It’s available to view online through the festival’s official website until this Monday, January 31.

‘Long Line of Ladies’ offers viewers a glimpse into the story of Ahty Allen, a young woman who lives amongst the Indigenous Karuk People in Northern California. After she begins her first menstrual cycle, which is celebrated in her community, she participates in the Karuk ceremony. The process normalizes menstruation across genders by uplifting its young women when they come of age.

The documentary opens the door for more young girls and women to feel seen, respected and included. The movie also amplifies the voices of supportive fathers, uncles and grandfathers, who aren’t often seen speaking openly about menstruation in society, which further breaks stigma across generations and genders.

Zehtabchi and Tome generously took the time last week to talk about co-helming and producing ‘Long Line of Ladies’ during an exclusive interview over Zoom. Among other things, the filmmakers discussed that after ‘Period. End of Sentence’ was released, they wanted to make ‘Long Line of Ladies’ in order to continue supporting the menstrual hygiene movement around the world. They also mentioned that they’re honored that ‘Long Line of Ladies’ is having its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, as everyone involved in making the short is proud of the final version of the project and are ready to share its message with the world.

ShockYa (SY): Together, you directed the new documentary short, ‘Long Line of Ladies.’ What inspired you bot to make a documentary about a girl and her community preparing for her Ihuk, the once dormant coming-of-age ceremony of the Karuk tribe of northern California?

Rayka Zehtabchi (RZ): Years ago, I made a film called ‘Period. End of Sentence’ with The Pad Project, which is a non-profit organization that strives to educate people about menstrual equity. The film exposed the taboo stigma around menstruation all over the world. That really helped ignite this menstrual hygiene movement.

So The Pad Project became involved in this film, as well, and helped identify communities and groups of people that celebrate menstruation, instead of being ashamed of it. The communities uplift the women in their lives.

After The Pad Project became involved in this documentary, we basically reached out to the family on Facebook after learning a little bit about the Ihuk ceremony, which is the once dormant coming-of-age ceremony of the Karuk tribe of northern California. I also reached out to Shaandiin, and here we are now.

SY: Shaandiin, when you joined ‘Long Line of Ladies,’ how did you approach your helming duties together on the film?

Shaandiin Tome (ST): It was a really fun experience. It was my first time co-directing ever, so I think it was a different thing to try and adjust to (during production). We had to sort out ideas to work towards the family’s wishes, as well, which included a lot of listening.

This happened during the pandemic, so Rayka and I had never met in person; we instead spent hours on Zoom, crying and eating together. But that (experience) was a lot of fun.

We then finally met each other in person, and it felt like we finally knew each other. We established that relationship, and we were very open with each other the entire time.

SY: While you were preparing to direct the movie together, what was your research process into how communities prepare for Ihuk?

ST: I think a lot of the research was through the families, so that was also a lot of Zoom calls and emails back and forth. They sent us some of the resources that they had used in the past. We also had Q&A sessions with them. We were constantly trying to figure out different takes on them and the story.

The great thing is that there’s so much that they’re doing, so there were different avenues of the story that we could take. But for the most part, we just really wanted to find that community experience, and show it in the film.

RZ: We really did look to the families, as we knew that they were the ones who could help us the most. This is their ceremony and experience, so they were the ones to look to (during our research process).

SY: ‘Long Line of Ladies’ is a stigma-breaking, female-directed short that takes a significant step forward to normalizing menstruation conversations across genders. Why do you feel it’s important to open the door for more young girls and women to feel seen, respected and included across all genders in this type of documentary?

RZ: I think Shaandiin and I have both similar and different reasons as to how and why we entered this project. I think it’s really important during this time now to capture positive stories.

When you look at a story like Pimm Tripp-Allen and her community, they’re so resilient in every way. They’ve done so much work through generations to ensure that traditions are being revitalized and moving forward in a positive way.

It’s really infectious watching them interact with one another; they’re so strong and positive, in every sense of the word. So I think it’s really important to have stories like this out in the world.

When we’re talking about menstruation, historically there really haven’t been a lot of positive, uplifting stories about it. If we’re talking about how menstruation’s portrayed in media, it’s usually not an empowering thing; it’s more about the shame. So I think it’s really exciting to see not only a positive story about menstruation, but also one about a modern, Indigenous family that’s at the center of it.

SY: Sam Davis served as the cinematographer on ‘Long Line of Ladies.’ What was the process like of collaborating with Sam on figuring out how you wanted to shoot the film?

ST: Well, Rayka is very close to the cinematographer, as they’re partners. (Tome laughs.) So they’ve worked together in the past, and thankfully, have a great way of communicating. They were also really open to figuring out a specific style and approach to how we were going to shoot.

I think that revolved a lot around how we created the feeling of not being too intrusive while we were being observant of what was happening with the family. We found a way to maintain that respect while we shot a lot of close-ups. There were also moments in the film where we were shooting wide shots.

There were a lot of playing around and inspirations that helped us get into the groove of filming. I think the first day was really chaotic, as we were bouncing from place to place.

But I think we had it within ourselves to realize that we had to be intentional with our shots, as we were shooting on film. So it wasn’t about just shooting everything. Rayka has said before that in most documentary settings, you keep the cameras rolling, but we really had to think about what we were shooting. That wasn’t just because we were shooting the movie on film, but also out of respect for the culture and ceremony.

SY: Rayka, in addition to directing the documentary, you also served as one of the producers. Why did you decide to also produce ‘Long Line of Ladies?’ How did you balance your helming and producing duties on the movie?

RZ: I think it’s always a challenge to direct and produce. I was also a producer on ‘Period. End of Sentence,’ and with documentaries like these (two), you’re always naturally involved in (such directorial and producing duties as) finding the family and building that relationship.

This project was actually produced by Junk Drawer Productions, which is my production company with Sam, who was also the editor on the film. It was challenging at times, and so many times when I was like, “Okay Shaandiin, I’m taking off the producer hat and putting on the director hat. Sorry to be talking to you in a way that’s more about the budget and less about the film itself.”

That was the big value and benefit of being co-directors; I could always lean on Shaandiin in the sense of being able to carry something or say something like, “Let’s think about about the creative side. How can we be thinking about this more intentionally, as opposed to the way you’re used to doing?” So while it was definitely challenging, I’m grateful to have had the experience to be able to learn how to juggle those two jobs.

SY: Like you mentioned, in addition to serving as the cinematographer, Sam also edited ‘Long Line of Ladies.’ What was the process like of working together to put the final version of the short together?

ST: I think Sam did an incredible job. At first, we were trying to figure out the deadlines and which festivals we wanted to submit the film to.

But since we shot on film, we didn’t have a ton of things to sift through. I think a lot of the things that we shot could have made it into the film. But I also think it was about finding the moments that we really wanted, and piecing them together in a way that really made sense.

I think our first cut was pretty long. (Tome laughs.) But it was just a matter of shaving things down. For me, it was difficult (to choose what to include in the film), as everything that came out of our discussion with the family was so important to me. I thought, let’s keep lingering on this.

But at some point, we had to figure out the story, and it was a fun process. Thankfully, we were all pretty much on the same page with it, as everything we filmed was great.

SY: Speaking of deciding which festivals you wanted to submit ‘Long Line of Ladies’ to, the documentary is having its World Premiering in the U.S. non-fiction short films category at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. What’s the experience like of bringing the documentary to the festival?

RZ: We wish it could be in person because we’re so excited for the family and larger community. They were so excited to go to Sundance in person – they went out and bought winter jackets and boots. (Zehtabchi laughs.)

It would have been really exciting for them to have a big celebration because there were a lot of challenges in making this film. Everyone loves, and is so proud of, the final version of the film. So when COVID allows, we want to have an in-person screening with the larger community, for the larger community, because it’s really about them.

Poster image of ‘Long Line of Ladies’ by Shaandiin Tome and Rayka Zehtabchi, an official selection of the Shorts Program at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.

By Karen Benardello

As a graduate of LIU Post with a B.F.A in Journalism, Print and Electronic, Karen Benardello serves as ShockYa's Senior Movies & Television Editor. Her duties include interviewing filmmakers and musicians, and scribing movie, television and music reviews and news articles. As a New York City-area based journalist, she's a member of the guilds, New York Film Critics Online and the Women Film Critics Circle.

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