The Circle Expands: Sky Hopinka’s "maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore"

The lauded filmmaker discusses his feature debut, which will be streamed free as part of the Images Festival.
Michael Sicinski

For years now, the films of Sky Hopinka have been garnering extensive attention in the worlds of art and film. Characterized by a rich, lyrical approach to imagery and a keen attention to the resonance of memory, Hopinka’s films are part of a growing number of film artists who are rejecting the numbing spectacle of 21st century image-saturation in favor of a more intensive examination of history, local cultures, and specificity of place.

As it happens, Hopinka is one of many artists who has made his back catalog available during these difficult days of COVID-19 quarantine, and so if you have not yet caught up with his short films, you can do so my going to his Vimeo page. But in addition to those remarkable films, audiences around the world will now have the opportunity to view Hopinka’s newest work and first feature film, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore. Maɬni (pronounced moth-nee) is an expansion of many of the themes that have permeated Hopinka’s work to date: the contemporary lives of First Peoples in the U.S., the survivance of Native spiritualities and cosmologies, and the avant-garde tradition of landscape cinema as inflected by specifically Native ecological traditions.

At the same time, maɬni finds Hopinka charting new territory, including some of the most straightforward documentary material he’s incorporated into his work thus far. The film is organized around two nonfiction protagonists, Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, each discussing their own relationship with their Chinook heritage. Most of the film is in the chinuk wawa language, and Hopinka uses the factual material of contemporary rituals to weave a larger, more abstract meditation on death and rebirth.

Following its January premiere in Sundance, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore will be showing for free online through Toronto’s Images Festival.

NOTEBOOK: After working for so long in the short form, what was it about this project in particular that seemed to demand feature length?

SKY HOPINKA: I had been wanting to make a feature length film for some years, and had actually been talking with Jordan Mercier about expanding a short film [HuyHuy] we made together in 2013 into a longer piece.  In the back of my mind I knew that whenever I did end up making a feature, it would involve chinuk wawa and the Pacific Northwest because it's a place I consider a home and because of my ties to the community and the landscape it felt like it would have a beneficial sense of familiarity for me. 

Issues of death and reincarnation are things I've been working through with my shorts for a number of years now, and I knew that I wanted to focus on that with the feature as well, to sort of further process what I'd been working through in the previous films with this origin of death myth.

NOTEBOOK:  How did you initially connect with Jordan and Sweetwater, and what made you focus on those two people as the subject for małni?

HOPINKA: I first met Jordan in a class in college and he was one of the first people I started teaching chinuk wawa to, and continue to speak with.  Jordan acted in that film in 2013, which was all in chinuk, so knowing that I wanted the language to be a part of the film it felt natural to focus on him.  With Sweetwater, I was visiting Portland a few years ago to do some test shoots for the feature and try out some gear and she came with me to hang out and catch up.  She ended up being in some of the test footage and I liked the way that it turned out when I was going over it. I also remembered that she was in another short of mine called Anti-Objects, which is also about chinuk wawa and Oregon.  Again, it felt natural to include her and I asked if she'd be interested and she was.  

NOTEBOOK: To what extent do you see małni as an extension of your previous work, and to what extend do you see it as a departure?

HOPINKA: I see this film as a direct extension, in that my initial plan with this film was to see how I can scale up the way that I make shorts, both practically and conceptually.  I knew that I didn't want to do any of the visual manipulations that I tend to do with most of my work, unless it felt absolutely right, and I knew that I wanted to focus on filming people. 

NOTEBOOK: I thought that I noticed some color enhancement in the sequences where Jordan is walking through the woods, where you have the follow shots behind him. The foliage has this ecstatic glow that I've seen in some of your short films. Is that not post-production / manipulation?

HOPINKA: It is, but I wasn't necessarily referring to the visual manipulations as separate from any post-production.  Rather more overt manipulations such as overlays, using images as filters, and abstracting them beyond a recognizable representation.  I color correct everything, so that tends to fall out of my short hand in referencing my post-production workflow.

If anything this film was about certain restraints, but also indulgences in certain things as well.  I've always wanted to try more long takes and play with duration, and the feature format definitely allows that.  Music was something different as well, where it's almost entirely composed by Thad Kellstadt, except for the track by Ramiro Ramirez who had contributed music to Fainting Spells and I'll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You'll Become.  I feel as though I'm using music in a similar way to how I have before, but having it come from a single composer unifies it in a way that I haven't really done before.  This project definitely gave me an opportunity to see how my approach to editing holds up or doesn't over a longer stretch of time, and I found that challenge invigorating.  

NOTEBOOK: I wonder if there were particular aesthetic models, either in cinema or other media, that you looked to as you were working in this longer, durational mode—in First Peoples cultural production, experimental cinema history, or anywhere else?

HOPINKA: There really wasn't anything specific I was watching or thinking about as I was making this, but that's not to say that I wasn't drawing on influences I've had over the years while imagining what a feature could be, or at least work in a longer format.  Definitely Peter Rose, Chantal Akerman, James Benning, Hollis Frampton, Shelley Niro, and Kent Mackenzie were filmmakers whose aesthetics and approaches to editing and working through linear and non-linear diegetics complemented more culturally specific forms I was thinking through.  

NOTEBOOK: Your work really stands out in the current avant-garde landscape, partly because you directly broach questions of spirituality. Do you think your interest in spirit matters has affected your search for radical new forms of representation?

HOPINKA: I'm sure that it has. In a lot of ways the content of my work drives the form of it, and then the form of it affects how I think about the content and what I want to share and what I don't want to share.  It's a cyclical sort of relationship that is very important to how I make work and how I think through these different processes and the complications of representation.  I don't know how new I am to the world of avant-garde cinema anymore, but encountering works of filmmakers in the canon and out of it, historical and contemporary, I've found that there are plenty of ways of reading these works and relating to even the most sterile, formal, and flat piece of moving image that has an emotional and spiritual resonance that affects some sort of response in the viewer that is undeniably human.

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