Sky Hopinka

Sky Hopinka on Indigenous language, the afterlife, and making his first feature

Sky Hopinka, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, 2020, HD video, color, sound, 80 minutes 21 seconds.

Following a decade of increasingly refined digital shorts focused on Indigenous languages and culture, the Ho-Chunk artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka debuted his first feature-length work on January 26, 2020, at the Sundance Film Festival. Set in the Columbia River Basin and spoken largely in the nearly extinct Chinuk Wawa tongue, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (2020) follows Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, two Pacific Northwest natives whose Chinook identities steer their conceptions of life, death, and rebirth. Lensed with an intimacy informed by Hopinka’s rapport with the natural landscape and marked by moments of visual grace and ingenuity, this quietly moving dual portrait is pieced together from conversations about language, family, addiction, and spirituality.

MAɬNI CENTERS ON THE CHINOOKAN ORIGIN-OF-DEATH MYTH, in which two people decide whether or not someone’s spirit comes back after they die. It’s the beginning of a longer cycle of myths that tells of a journey to the spirit world. As these stories tend to do, the cycle provides a model for understanding our own existence.

I was born in northern Washington, and after spending my teens and early twenties in Southern California, I moved to Portland, Oregon, to go to school. There, I learned Chinuk Wawa and began to get involved in Indigenous language revitalization, which offered me a framework for thinking about my place in this country and this region as an Indigenous person. The Pacific Northwest landscape is familiar to me: It’s my home, but not my homeland, as my tribes are from Wisconsin and Southern California. I find it deeply fascinating that there are so many ways to look at where belonging and its tensions come from, what these places represent.

Jordan Mercier acted in my only narrative short, huyhuy, or “trade” in Chinuk Wawa. That project helped us see our language in an unspectacular way, where it’s just the way that we talk. When I was ready to make a feature, it felt intuitive to return to the Northwest and see what we could do in this language and landscape.

I first met Sweetwater Sahme in 2006 as part of the Native student group at Portland State University. I was doing some location scouting and shooting tests, and she happened to be in Portland. Before we started shooting together, she told me she was pregnant, and that really guided the direction of the film—to frame the portraits around these moments of change and transition in the characters’ lives, and how those moments could respond to the origin-of-death myth. Jordan and his wife, Amanda, had their daughter Ila five years earlier, and Amanda gave birth to their son Vincent during production. Nonfiction feels more natural to me than working with something scripted. I knew early on that I didn’t want to learn a whole new way to make films, and instead wanted to see how well my short film–making practice scaled up to a longer form. The work is primarily self-funded; I served as cinematographer, sound designer, and editor.

The amount of footage for maɬni was about thirteen hours in total, which is much more than what I’m used to working with. And so I started assembling the movie the way that I would a short, constructing sections for the beginning, middle, and end. Those blocks introduced structure, but it was figuring out how to get to and depart from those scenes that proved most difficult. I decided to employ a few visual interludes of dancing, singing, and traveling as caesurae in the narrative, using them as opportunities to ease the burden placed on Sweetwater and Jordan to carry the story. Allowing them generous breathing room as characters was important to me, especially since there aren’t any postproduction effects like what I’ve employed in the past. Almost everything that has a more visually abstract element to it was done in-camera with a slow shutter speed, and then fleshed out further in post. When I was editing, I never felt the impulse to affect anything for the sake of it—I was reluctant to overburden the film. Instead, I trusted the image and montage to create a space of understanding for the viewer.