Using the camera as a tool for healing: Sky Hopinka’s maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore

By Sophie Silverstone

Lush, green forests of the Pacific Northwest immerse viewers in nature. A Chinookan woman with long, inky black hair named Sweetwater Sahme stands beside a waterfall. We’ve learned her child is on their way to this world. She then steps into the waterfall with intention and lets the rushing water soak her clothes through. There is ritual in her act, but the unknowing eyes might have missed that. Preservation of culture can be subtle.

Director and artist Sky Hopinka’s first feature film, maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore is at once a linguistic document, an allegory of water, and a meditation on life, death and reincarnation. maɬni (pronounced moth-nee) charts a new path in the world of experimental film with a richly visual and auditory experience, through the lives and thoughts of the film’s two human subjects, Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier; a sacred meteorite called T’emanewas; and the Chinookan death origin myth. Intermittently throughout the film Hopinka narrates the myth in Chinuk Wawa, one of North America’s nearly forgotten languages indigenous to the Columbia River Basin. The film is in both Chinuk Wawa and English.

“What is it to be indigenous on our own terms, rather than other terms that are laid out for us?” asks Hopinka through his work. As he navigates the area near Portland in the Chinuk tribe community, the film weaves back and forth through the forest, the river, both subjects’ homes, to a pow wow and to the ocean. Sahme and Mercier visit the issues we all face: our role we serve for future generations, breaking cycles––what repeats itself, and what we can change. Unburdened by the idea of story, Hopinka’s use of nonlinear narrative explores the cyclical nature of time in the film. “It’s more like a spiral than a circle,” Hopinka told me in an interview in Park City back in January. The film premiered at Sundance in the New Frontier category, spanning 82 minutes in which nature, culture and language are in dialogue with one another.

Hopinka’s intuitive approach to making the film is a choice that is appreciated by the indigenous community which the film honors and preserves. Mercier remarked on how Hopinka put together a story that connects really well with their ancestors’ mindset.

Hopinka treads lightly, however, as he admits he is an outsider to the Chinuk tribe himself. Hopinka’s tribes are from Southern Wisconsin and California. He was born and raised in Washington, and spent many years in California and Oregon. “There’s always this feeling of being a visitor, like being a guest, and understanding and respecting those boundaries,” says Hopinka. While living in Portland and spending a lot of time at the Native American Student and Community Center, he learned Chinuk. He also teaches it in order to help with indigenous validation efforts. Hopinka understands why it is important to be mindful to respect the boundaries of the different tribes. There are so many rules that have been broken by ethnographers and anthropologists in the past, he tells me. This is not to mention the misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, genocide, the threat of erasure and other atrocities that indigenous cultures have faced for centuries since the arrival of white settlers in the Americas.

Hopinka’s turned the camera into an object of healing for the indigenous identity, whereas in the past cameras have been used against indigenous people and used in a destructive way, says Mercier.

“The elders, the young people, they all took away different meaning, but it was inspiring. It felt good to them to see it. It helped them see themselves in a different way, it helped them see their relations in a different way. To me that’s revolutionary. There’s something about the way that Sky approaches it, whenever he’s around with the camera, whoever is around, it’s like he’s drawing out the good.”

Hopinka’s poetic approach to the film allows maɬni’s focus on indigenous spirituality to be slow, deliberate, and in a way that’s not sensationalized. It allows the subjects to just be, devoid of the pressure for something radical to happen. It allows them to exist on their own terms.

Hopinka is now living in Vancouver, British Columbia, where he teaches film at Simon Frasier University. Hopinka and other indigenous filmmakers are currently working on the COUSIN Collective and finding ways to support each other.

maɬni has been shown in the Chinuk community in theatres in Portland, as well as at the Images Film Festival in Toronto. Park City’s Deep Water Initiative, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding the academic field of ecology and spirituality, is streaming the film online through July 15, including an online zoom discussion with Dorothy Christian, Cucw-la7, PhD, associate director of Indigenous Initiatives at Simon Frasier University, on July 15 at 6:30 MST. Viewers can get more info and tune in by registering here.

This article was originally published on July 14, 2020.