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Reclaiming History: An Interview with Sky Hopinka

Reclaiming History: An Interview with Sky Hopinka

With experimental short films and video installations, Sky Hopinka has embarked on nomadic explorations of identity, displacement, and representation that are deeply personal and universally affecting. Hopinka, a tribal member of the Ho-Chunk Nation and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Native Americans, has examined the sociology and culture of indigenous communities in shorts such as “Dislocation Blues” (2017) and “Fainting Spells” (2018). 

His debut feature-length film, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (2020), premiered in Sundance’s New Frontier Films and Performances category in January. This lyrical meditation on myths, the afterlife, and reincarnation has Hopinka following two of his friends, Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, as they move through life. Hopinka observes their interactions with nature and with the people around them. Moreover, the director’s careful conservationist values shine in the film as he considers questions of indigenous identity, mythmaking, and how they may or may not be reconciled with contemporary life.

Shortly after the Sundance screenings, I talked with Hopinka over Skype about the themes in his work.


I saw maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore at Sundance. I thought it was beautifully made. Could you walk me through the process of making this film and getting to screen it at Sundance?

Well, I started thinking about this film two-and-a-half years ago, just this idea about myths and what they would look like in a contemporary setting. My approach was to try out the way I make short films and apply that to a longer one. I was also thinking about the relationship of myth and these two people that I am friends with, and how they can fit into a story. I started working on the film during a retreat last year, but really the process of getting into Sundance is the same [for everyone]: filling out an application form and submitting a film. Thankfully, I got programmed in the New Frontier Films and Performances category.

It was my first time in Sundance this year, and it was thanks to the festival’s big push for inclusivity and diversity. I noticed before every screening there was an ancestral land acknowledgement. What does that say to you?

Inclusivity is important, especially in the film industry. What does it mean to have work that is about indigenous people, and that is made by indigenous people in these spaces? That feels good. So does the land acknowledgement that happened before the screening. This was the first year they had done that, and the people that were up on the screen giving the land acknowledgement were all indigenous people who work with Sundance. It was encouraging to see them on screen and important for our people to enter these spaces. Of course, the next question becomes what else? Or what more can be done to make this place more inclusive, and have more voices and films that are from indigenous perspectives, or from any other perspectives, that aren’t from the predominant one that has a lot of say in everything?

You worked with your friends on this film; did you go to them or did they come to you? How does an idea like this form and grow into the living work that we saw?

I went to them and into their spaces. Think of it as a representation of where our friendship exists in different spaces. Just like going on walks in the forest and looking at nature and talking about stuff, that’s a representation of our friendship. With Jordan, going on a new journey with his family and his community, that was a part of our friendship and how it exists. So, for me, I guess it was important to not think too much about them coming to me or how they fit into the film, but how I could apply the film to be a representation of their lives and the friendship that we have.

What was the collaboration like? Were you pushing them or were they giving freely? How do you get exactly what you want and how long did you have to follow them? 

I started filming in the summer of 2018, and the last thing I shot was probably three months ago. It was off and on. I would go to Portland to visit Sweetwater Sahme and to Grand Ronde to visit Jordan. We would spend a day or two together, and I didn’t push for them to give me any sort of performance. In one of our conversations while I was at Sweetwater’s, I asked if she wanted to be interviewed. She agreed, and we had a conversation about relationship, life and death, reincarnation, and being pregnant. For Jordan, we talked about what was going on in his life or what he was thinking about. In terms of that collaboration, it was really important for me to not prompt them in any sort of way, but to follow their lead in terms of what they wanted to talk about, and what was important for them, rather than any ideas I had about what was important for them.

Your films have a connection with history. Why is it important for you to trace this line from our history to the present?

History helps us locate ourselves, especially for someone indigenous to North America or the United States, where history was erased or you were told to forget about it. Reclaiming that history and understanding that history, whether it is something that happened 100 years ago or a thousand years ago, is an important part of studying an identity and what it means to be today. Understanding how you and your ancestors existed in this landscape forms who you are today. It is a source of power and connection that is resistant to assimilation policies, or policies of race or genocide, that happened in this country over the last 150 years. We have this history, but how do you engage with it? How do you represent it in a contemporary setting, or how do you think about it today, and how can it actually be a part of who you are and how you navigate the world? 

What is your relationship with the land and why do you have this pull towards making sense of it, as well as space and time? 

The way that I have thought about the land hasn’t really changed. I try to understand what my draw to it is, especially in terms of indigenous cosmology. More so than a lot of other things, the land informs the language and the belief systems. The way that I try and shoot the land, or exist in it, is about the perspective, about the body within these different spaces; there is the sense of wonder, too. Just movement, and trying to feel what it is to be in different spaces, this environment with many trees, the rain and the dirt and the ocean, and how they are markers of so many things that we remember and that we have forgotten. So yes, it is important for us to remember.

In terms of space, how do you locate yourself or see yourself in connection with your ancestors or the people who came before?

I am worried about presence; the film represents a relationship to time but not necessarily in a linear format. In the film, there is an ending and a beginning. Places are cut up and separated based on time and space, and it becomes more about a circular sort of approach to time where things overlap. I think that is the relationship to my ancestors and to people in my past where there is still a presence to acknowledge. It feels less lonely too, especially navigating this country today as an indigenous person; it feels very much connected in the present and making space for that history to be present.

As an indigenous person, what is your relationship with America today?

It is a really complicated relationship. How does one identify or locate oneself? I have an American passport, and I am an American citizen, but I am also a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, and that is also part of my identity and how I see myself. The Ho-Chunk Nation identifies as a sovereign nation within the United States, just like every other tribe. That is where it gets complicated because legally, I am an American and was raised as an American and, at the same time, I feel like I don’t belong. It is a complicated thing, feeling like an outsider in a landscape that seems like home — it is home. How do you describe feeling like an outsider in a place that you feel so connected to? It is something that I am trying to work through with a lot of these films.

How do you navigate these contradictions, not just in films but also personally on a day-to-day basis?

It is something that I am always reminded of, even just how I exist with my body in different spaces. The color of my skin and the features that I have are factors used to identify people as “other.” I recognize that it is hard for me to blend in, and it is hard for me to think of myself as someone other than not being a part of the majority, so I think that affects me in ways that I am still trying to impact and work through. It speaks to the importance of the friends that I have and the thing that we are trying to do together, which is to make more space for indigenous people to understand how they fit in this country today or how they identify as an indigenous person. 

As you mentioned, the film has a non-linear structure. How do you contend with various time structures or zones, and how do you put it all together and have it make sense in a way that the audience can relate to and not feel lost?

That is something I have worked through since I started editing. In terms of assembling the film, I was focused on how the scenes make sense together, and how one leads to another and how to block it in such a way that there is what feels like a beginning, an ending, and a middle point. I wasn’t too concerned with any certain linear logic, but rather with an emotional one, and how these characters can introduce pieces of themselves, and how I can see them in these different spaces and give them the opportunity to speak and be present. 

You also translated the dialogue in English and Chinook; what drives that decision? 

I knew that I wanted the film to be in Chinook when I started it, and the original plan was to have the entire film in Chinook, but then Sweetwater doesn’t speak the language, and that was fine. It doesn’t matter. I set up these rules and I can break them. I also wanted to figure out how to think about the film from a Chinook perspective, so why not subtitle Sweetwater’s stuff and try to present them in a way that I think felt equal in some ways. I mean, my first language is English and due to a lot of assimilation policies in the United States, my mother doesn’t speak her indigenous language. It is a complicated relationship that we have to language and it is really important to me. But at the same time, I wanted to acknowledge that it is okay to speak English. We exist in these dualities and they can be more than dualities; they can be more than polarized ideas about who we are and what we are not, so just mixing English and Chinook in a way that isn’t trying to prioritize one over another but by making space for both. It is a way to try and find different ways to communicate more. That is what it comes down to.

I come from a place where we believe strongly in reincarnation, so I could relate to that theme. What is the extent of your fascination with this origin myth that the film is anchored on?

I have been interested in indigenous ideas of reincarnation for a while, and I have worked on that in my short films. When I first read this myth, it was in a Chinook Wawa dictionary. At the very end, there’s a section where the texts are archived or translated, and this one was included. It was a beautiful story, and one that was also the beginning of a larger circle of stories. It got me thinking about reincarnation and how these myths shape who we are and how they also have the potential to exist in us. I began to ponder on how to make a film about a myth without telling a myth, or trying to re-enact the myth. So the text itself comes up half way or two-thirds of the way through the film; it is a way to read the film, but it isn’t the entirety of the film. It is a way to understand how the landscape, shore, and ocean function in terms of life and afterlife. 

That’s interesting. Family is another common theme that runs through your work. It matters to you, obviously. 

Family is what we are taught and how we view the world that we exist in. For better and for worse, everyone has complicated relationships with their parents, siblings, and friends. It is something that connects you to the past as well as to the future. It is also about whom we tend to trust and not trust for various reasons. Thinking about friends or family that I am related to, or family that I don’t know, is a way to think about how I exist and what my identity is.


Top image: maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Starting May 8th, Kinoscope will upload one of the filmmaker’s shorts every Friday for eleven weeks. Hopinka’s films will remain on the platform for long-term availability, joining a roster of esteemed contemporary avant-garde works.

About The Author

Wilfred Okiche

Wilfred Okiche is one of the most influential critics working in the Nigerian culture space. He has attended critic programs and reported from film festivals in Berlin, Rotterdam, Stockholm, Durban, and Lagos. He is a member of FIPRESCI.

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