Native filmmaker Shaandiin Tome: “We celebrate who we are more openly”


Adam Piron is the Director of the Indigenous Program at the Sundance Institute, which identifies and supports Indigenous filmmakers through fellowships, grants, artist labs, screenings, and the Sundance Film Festival itself. Piron belongs to the Kiowa and Mohawk tribes. This feature is part of CNN Style’s Hypheated series, which explores complex questions of identity.

Shaandiin Tome was on the road when she heard the news. The 29-year-old New Mexico-based filmmaker Diné was returning from a whirlwind week at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival in Austin, where her documentary “Long Line of Ladies,” which she co- made with Rayka Zehtabchi, had just screened. His partner was watching a live stream of the awards ceremony on Twitter when the film was announced as the winner for Best Documentary Short of 2022.

“I thought he was joking, until I saw the ad on his phone,” Tome recalled. “I pulled over and called Rayka to make sure it was really happening. We were just celebrating in the car for the rest of the ride.”

“Long Line of Ladies” enters the world of Ahtyirahm “Ahty” Allen, a 13-year-old member of the Karuk tribe in northern California, as she anticipates her “Ihuk” or Flower Dance – a ceremony of coming of age that takes place after young women in her community have had their first period. According to the documentary, the ritual was practiced by the tribe for generations before the California Gold Rush, in which Native American girls and women were sexually abused. The practice lay dormant for over 120 years until it was revived in the 1990s by a group of Karuk.

Shot on 16mm film, the documentary does not show the ceremony itself (filming such events is prohibited in many Native American cultures) but rather follows Ahty as she prepares for the big day – trying on a ceremonial bark skirt maple to chat with other girls about what it means to take the leap. In a poignant scene, she practices being blindfolded with a “taáv”, a blinder made of laurel feathers, while members of her community teach her dance moves.

The film brings a much-needed rectification to notions of indigenity at odds with modernity by showing an indigenous tribe celebrating traditions and recontextualizing them for a younger generation. “I didn’t realize, until recently having all these conversations, that once I have my flower dance, it’s my responsibility to carry on (the tradition),” Ahty says on the approach. of his ceremony. “I feel ready to do that.”

An image from “Long Line of Ladies”. Credit: Courtesy of Sam Davis

For Tome, the film was a labor of love. “When I entered it, I thought of the ‘kinaaldá’: the ceremony of Diné femininity”, explained the director on the phone.

“I didn’t want to have mine when I was younger because I was embarrassed at the time. It was a lot about how I saw myself back then, which also reflected how the culture popular represents indigenous women,” she explained. “Growing up, there wasn’t a lot of representation… There were the women I saw in my life, who in my mind were powerful and had an impact. Then there were representations like Disney’s “Pocahontas”, which created a romance, a portrait, of native women.

“I think being constantly misrepresented among my peers made me feel like I was not valued and by extension my beliefs and culture had no place in the western world.”

movie poster for

Poster of the movie “Long Line of Ladies”. Credit: Courtesy of Shaandiin Tome

“Long Line of Ladies” co-director Zehtabtchi previously directed the 2018 Oscar-winning documentary short “Period. End of Sentence,” which focused on women in a rural village outside of Delhi, in India, who are trying to de-stigmatize menstruation. After hearing about the revival of the Ihuk, Zehtabtchi approached Tome – who as a director and cinematographer has worked on several projects focusing on untold stories from indigenous communities – to collaborate on a documentary about the ritual. They spent over four months researching and interviewing Ahty’s tribe and family, filming for a total of seven days during production.

“This (Karuk) community had a different mindset. It’s amazing to see them not only practicing their traditions, but also being ready to adapt to future generations who take them on,” Tome said.

“We’re getting to a point where we’re more openly celebrating who we are as Indigenous people.”

A behind-the-scenes photo from the production.

A behind-the-scenes photo from the production. Credit: Courtesy of Shaandiin Tome

Tome and Zehtabtchi’s shared victory comes as the film and television industries are blossoming with the critically acclaimed work of a new generation of Indigenous artists. Highlights of recent years include Taika Waititi’s Oscars for ‘Jojo Rabbit’ in 2020, as well as Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s all-Indigenous ‘Reservation Dogs’ on FX, Sierra Teller’s ‘Rutherford Falls’ on Ornelas Peacock, Fox Maxy’s win for “Maat Means Land” at the Rotterdam International Film Festival and Sky Hopinka’s Sundance premiere of “maɬni — to the ocean, to the shore.”

This wave of Indigenous artists working across genres and narrative forms indicates the emergence of an increasingly distinct Indigenous cinema. In addition to offering unique aesthetic approaches, this wave of films broke with convention by portraying the experiences of individual tribes rather than pan-Indian ones. This is part of a larger assertion that Indigenous films and television should not represent the monolith of a single people or nation, but should rather act as a fuzzy label for the work of artists from of distinct cultures linked by a common historical struggle. This perspective naturally lends itself to a kind of personal storytelling, including translating culturally specific perspectives and philosophies into new visual languages ​​outside of mainstream American traditions.

Shaandiin Tome speaks onstage during the Women at Sundance 2020 Celebration hosted by the Sundance Institute and Refinery29 on January 27, 2020 in Park City, Utah.

Shaandiin Tome speaks onstage during the Women at Sundance 2020 Celebration hosted by the Sundance Institute and Refinery29 on January 27, 2020 in Park City, Utah. Credit: Suzi Pratt/Getty Images

“There are so many paths coming from so many different people and their perspectives,” Tome said.

“Being alive in this time is now so wild, and thinking about how I can make movies with a lens that didn’t exist before. It takes a lot of risk and power to get things done. I feel lucky to be able to do that with this movie.” With his win at SXSW, “Long Line of Ladies” is now eligible to be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Documentary Short of 2023 category. If that happens, Tome would become the first-ever Native American director to have an Oscar-nominated film. .

Asked about the possibility, the filmmaker said: “Ahty’s story deserves it all. This family and what they do deserves it all. If being shortlisted or nominated just helps to recognize what they’ve done (in terms of cultural preservation), I’m more than happy with that.”

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