Hopinka’s feature debut is a poetic and evocative film, one that seeks to quantify and articulate the symbiosis of humanity and earth.
A prolific maker of short films and video installation works, Sky Hopinka’s maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore is his first feature-length project, an experimental documentary that also functions as an essayistic treatise on reclaiming the past while simultaneously looking forward towards the future. Loosely structured around Hopinka’s own voice-over narration, in which he recounts a Chinookan death myth, the film follows two subjects, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, as they traverse natural landscapes and converse with an offscreen Hopinka about their relationship with their tribal identities. Hopinka is himself a member of the Ho-Chunk n=Nation, and as such, is one of our few visible, working indigenous filmmakers, rare enough in the mainstream and even more so in the rarified world of experimental film. And so, his exploration of one’s place in the modern world mirrors that of Sahme and Mercier, creating an interwoven tapestry of sorts. maɬni is a film of possibilities, then, functioning as a series of explorations suggesting potential avenues for the future.
Beginning with a long take of waves crashing onto the shoreline, water becomes the film’s key visual motif. Hopinka’s narration tells of traveling across and through water as a spiritual journey of death and rebirth, which lends a certain poetic resonance to his interviewees’ descriptions of their lives. Mercier’s first interview segment details his decision to grow his hair long to more fully embrace his indigenous identity, and how it helps him feel more powerful. There’s a hint of a mournful tone as he describes white teachers denigrating young boys for their long hair, asking if they’re girls, and suddenly, in real-time, his chosen hairstyle takes on a political dimension. Hopinka films Mercier mostly in public spaces, emphasizing a desire for community and group ritual. Conversely, Sahme conducts her interviews largely in isolation, less concerned with ceremonies than communing directly with the land. She details hardships from her past, the struggle of growing up with a single mother, her recent sobriety, and her desire to break past cycles for the benefit of her own unborn child. All the while, she interacts directly with water, wading into it, washing her face with it, dabbling it on her pregnant stomach. Pointedly, Mercier speaks almost entirely in his native language, Chinuk Wawa, while Sahme speaks mostly in English. There’s no editorializing here — neither decision is coded as more or less “correct” — but the difference is yet another example of the mystery of how individuals choose to move through this world.
There’s a looseness to the form here that, while sometimes chaotic or seemingly disorganized, ultimately manages to create a freewheeling sense of freedom. Static shots of landscapes give way to handheld shots that travel with the camera’s subjects, which in turn give way to abstract interludes of pure light and movement. There’s an occasional bit of ostentatious stylization, like the repeated use of a camera obscura effect, or digital color correction applied to the landscape, but the film largely embraces a naturalistic mode. Hopinka observes Mercier at different events, like the carrying of a giant canoe and later a musical performance, always probing with and repositioning the camera. Hopinka is always looking for the totality of any given moment, trying to take in the entirety of an experience. Critic Michael Sicinski has observed that Hopinka is “focused on history as a material process, a set of actions bound to the land and inscribed on the body.” To wit: at one point, Sahme stands in a forest observing a waterfall and voices something like “you don’t really have to say much, it’s a feeling, it’s an energy.” maɬni is very much Hopinka’s attempt to quantify that feeling, of being “bound to the land,” and to articulate its weight to his audience. It’s a beautiful film, poetic and evocative, ending on a transcendent grace note of limitless possibilities.