PODCAST — Episode 14, recorded
Sky Hopinka in conversation with BFMAF programmer Herb Shellenberger about the film ‘maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore’.→
Sky Hopinka (1984, Washington) is a filmmaker, artist, teacher and curator based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His work centres around personal positions of homeland and landscape, designs of language and facets of culture contained within, and the play between the accessibility of the known and the unknowable. He received his BA from Portland State University in Liberal Arts and his MFA in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His work has played at various festivals including ImagineNATIVE Media + Arts Festival, Images Festival, Wavelengths (Toronto), Ann Arbor Film Festival, American Indian Film Festival (San Francisco), Sundance, Antimatter (Victoria, Canada), Chicago Underground Film Festival, FLEXfest (Florida), Projections (New York), and the LA Film Festival. His work was a part of the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial and the 2017 Whitney Biennial. He was awarded jury prizes at the Milwaukee Underground Film Festival, the More with Less Award at the 2016 Images Festival, the Tom Berman Award for Most Promising Filmmaker at the 54th Ann Arbor Film Festival, and 3rd Prize at the 2015 Media City Film Festival. Sky Hopinka’s Dislocation Blues won the 2017 Berwick New Cinema Award and his film Visions of an Island was shown in an exhibition during BFMAF 2016.
Herb Shellenberger is a film programmer and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings and film series at an international array of very excellent film festivals, cinematheques and art institutions, as well as some not so good like Tate and Tyneside Cinema which unfortunately have treated their workers very poorly. He is editor of Rep Cinema International, a newsletter/online publication focusing on repertory and archival film exhibition around the world and has recently written for the exhibition catalogue Dream Dance: The Art of Ed Emswhiller (Anthology Editions/Lightbox Film Center, 2019).
This is Herb Shellenberger, programmer at Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival, and we’re really happy to speak with Sky Hopinka today, and very proud to show his film, Malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore. You’ve shown your work a number of times before. I’m really excited to have your newest film. You’ve been prolific as an artist filmmaker, working in short form moving-image. How did you conceive of this film? And I’m also wondering, even before production, what was the preparation of the film like, in relation to how you would approach a short film?
Well, I’ve been wanting to do a longer film for a number of years now but could never really figure out what that looked like or figure out a project that made sense for a longer form. And when I had started thinking more about reincarnation, especially around my tribe’s beliefs around it, and that it appeared in another short film of mine, called I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You Become. So it was, I guess, a line of thinking that really, I don’t know, it connects to different communities that I’ve been a part of and worked with.
I’ve done three films that include Chinuk Wawa, a language to the Pacific Northwest, the language that I speak. And when I was looking through the dictionary one day, like in the back of the dictionary, there’s all these different texts that are transcriptions of the fluent speakers that the linguists had talked to over the years, all the way from 1920s and ’30s, up until the ’80s. And one of the stories that was in there was the origin of death myth. And I just thought it was really beautiful and I don’t know, just like conceptualised reincarnation and death and the idea of death having a beginning or something that was established, or had to be established, was just a beautiful way to think about reincarnation, outside of my own tribe’s beliefs.
And so that just kind of started me on this path of thinking about the film as being about that. I’d also known that I wanted to make a feature length film in Chinuk Wawa and so it seemed to line up with all these different ideas that had been swirling around in my head. As far as the production and preparing for it, I knew I didn’t really want to try and learn a different style of filmmaking or just having a big budget or having a crew or having all these different things that I’d never do or work with. Like I’m going to shoot and I edit and I do the sound on my own for most of my films. With this one, a friend of mine helped me with the sound recording on the canoe journey shoots and Zac Hilstack did the soundtrack for the film, which was really nice for me to start piecing all these segments together. And really what I wanted to do is just scale up or see how my short filmmaking practice scaled up into something longer.
Yeah. That’s a really good way of putting it because I see definitely a continuity, in terms of the themes and subjects of your previous films. But I do find Malni somewhat of a departure in terms of the form? We see you out in the world with Sweetwater and Jordan in conversation and traveling to these different locations, kind of just spending a lot of time together. And there’s less of a focus on the visual textures or image collages that we’ve seen in your other films. So I’m interested to know if this was a conscious choice during production, or if you found this more in the editing, this sort of, let’s call it, for lack of a better term, a simpler style.
Yeah. It was something I thought a lot about, especially while making it and shooting because most of those extractions that I tend to employ in the short film happen either, I don’t know in camera, like with a shutter speed or just like with filters or in post-production and just playing around with images and seeing how they stack and seeing how they interact with one another. So while shooting, I mean, if something made sense to slow down the shutter speed or whatever, then I would do it. And really the thing that I tend to do is kind of oscillate back and forth between these different techniques or approaches to the image to these different short projects. I made a film called Dislocation Blues, and that was pretty straight forward film formerly. There wasn’t a lot of manipulations digitally or abstractly. And then right after that, I made another short term called Fainting Spells, which was heavy in abstraction and also heavy in the soundtrack. There weren’t a lot of voices. And usually when there are people on the screen or people that I’m shooting, I tend to not want to do too much abstraction just because I’m not quite sure how I feel about it. And so with this film, I felt like it would have been a challenge or was a challenge for me, or just to lean into the impulse, to not abstract the image and just to keep the cuts as straight as I could or just to do what I could, within the images as I shot it. Whether it was like the saturation of the colour, or even just being an opportunity to play with the soundtrack more or the soundscape more, in order to employ the same sort of affects or affect that was hoping or kind of hoped to accomplish or achieve with visual manipulations.
You’ve also produced a lot of amazing writing and texts. I noticed that your second book is due to be published soon and your films have kind of all included writing texts, different forms of narration or language. It might be a little bit less obvious in Malni, but I was wondering how you feel that writing or language and how they’re represented in the film and what kind of bearing dialogue or conversation has in that.
With the writing elements, I mean, even just like coming up with the dialogue in Chinuk that I realised, as a narrator, it was hard to thinking about how do I write this? I didn’t really want to write in Chinuk and then, speak it and then I didn’t want to write something in English and then translate it into Chinuk so what I ended up doing it was just watching the cut and then with a microphone and just talking over it and seeing whatever made sense. And so these different parts of language approaches, I think they’re all tied together, especially with a writing plan, especially with the writing that appears in films or the writing that I do for films that then appears in these different texts. I don’t feel too much of a distinction between them or how they interact with one another. I think they’re all for me, trying to approach, whether it is a concept or whether it is some sort of singular idea and in a different way. In a circular sort of way and just trying to suss out what these different things are, these different issues are that I feel compelled to write about or speak about or make films about. So that’s the complimentary.
I’ve always really admired your work because you’re able to really eloquently relate what you’ve written on your website, as personal positions of indigenous homeland and landscape. I use the word relate because I think that’s different than explaining. So you’ve related this positioning in some of your films. It’s a first person kind of embodied position but with Malni, there’s this quite sustained relation of two other people’s positioning over a longer duration of time. So I wonder what was that like? Was it daunting? Was it exciting and how does your relationship with most of these people play into relating their positioning?
I don’t think I realised how daunting it was or would be until like a month or two into editing, trying to figure out how to balance these different stories and how to make them communicate with one another and how to weave them together. And how also, to just respect them as people and as individuals, to understand the limitations of what I could shoot or also, I don’t know, the places that I could go. Whether it’s like understanding them personally, or just like figuring out what it is that I want to express with the film. And for me, it was like a lot of it was just like this friendship between the two of them. I’ve known Sweetwater since 2006 and I’ve known Jordan since 2011. And so these are friends of mine and people that are consistently in my life and what is the thing that I want to convey that also holds me accountable as the filmmaker and also as the person that is presenting them or with the camera, the authority behind that. And so it became about our friendship. So just figuring out like where our friendships exist in these different landscapes.
There’s also things that we talk about and the things that we don’t talk about. There’s a lot of different things that kind of happened over the course of shooting, like the canoe journey. And then Jordan and his wife, Amanda, they were expecting their son Vincent and then Sweetwater got pregnant and these are all just things that happened during the course of the filming. And it was just how then they represent where each of them are at in life but then also how that relates to just the overall theme of life and death. I mean, even too, just like not wanting to essentialize Sweetwater, as a woman that has a child. That isn’t what should define her. Or even trying to resist the binary that is presented in the film between a man and a woman and trying to figure out, is this a limitation of the film or just a limitation of what I can see but then how it changes to just reconcile that or just think about what the opportunities are for them to be a conversation or dialogue. How to not essentialize either of them, either as indigenous people, based on their phenotype and how they look and the color of their skin or as the identities that they hold for themselves. So these are all the different things that I was thinking about, especially while editing it and especially while shooting it and just trying to get both of them space and opportunity to speak and to relate what it means to be a friend to them and also what it means to be navigating life, as well as living on that landscape that they do, that is a bit Northwest, that is the ocean, that it’s the forest.
I really appreciate how you do weave their two stories and your two separate, distinctive relationships together, in a way, focusing on two different people isn’t something that I feel like I’ve seen in a lot of films. There can be films that focus on one person or on a number of people but it just struck me that this kind of sustained dual but like heterogeneous kind of depiction was sort of unique. When did you arrive to that structure?
I think it was when I was doing some test shooting in Oregon. And Sweetwater was working as a flight attendant at the time. And so I was passing through Oregon and she happened to be in town and so the weekend and so decided to hang out. And I was doing some tests with the camera that I had and the steady camera… Not the steady camera but the Gimbals. And so we drove out to the forest and walked around and we just gave her shots. I wanted her to try some other stuff and I was just like, “Oh yeah.” No, Sweetwater was also in a film that I made a few years before called Anti-Objects, it was about Chinuk Wawa, in Portland. So it made sense to have her in this as well. I don’t know. It just kind of like grew from there. Because Jordan, with some of that been talking to from the start about being in the film, because he was in my first and only narrative short film called wawa which was entirely in Chinuk Wawa. And so making Chinuk Wawa films is something that we had been talking about. So for the two of them, I began thinking about how they both occupied these different landscapes in different places and just spending time with them.
And then another element that I was hoping would have more of a presence in the film, but I think it’s just more like, sort of in the background, is that of the meteor. It’s monolist and just like how that functions but then also how do I function as a narrator, as another character, or an in between. And then just constructing it and trying to weave these different sections together and where they are in these different landscapes, kind of establishing from the beginning that I don’t think I ever wanted them to meet. Or have a meeting between them be sort of like endpoints or just like a resolution or part of the thing that would be expected. Because I think that would tend to lead or just kind of rely too much on a more traditional sort of storytelling format with like two characters, do they ever meet, you know?
And I don’t know, I just wanted to give them both of their own space within the film and to also make them independent of each other. And I don’t know, like whatever that does for their own agency, as people that are represented in a film, it felt like that was something that just made sense from the get go.
Yeah. That’s really well put. A difficult question. I’m wondering what the reception has been like thus far, of the film but also how it’s been exhibited and what are you hoping about the future of the film? It’s a really difficult time to be making and exhibiting films.
Oh, it’s been hard. I mean, I feel fortunate that it had a chance to play three festivals before the lockdown happened. And it premiered at Sundance and the New Friends Here programme and Jordan had a chance to come to that with Amanda, his wife. Sweetwater couldn’t make it because she had her daughter three weeks before. There was also a representative from the Grand Ronde tribe, that are tribes of Grand Rondes that got to go to the screening at Sundance, as well. So that was really nice. But I don’t know. We had all the best plans to show it in Oregon, show it to the community. And since then, it’s just been a series of online screenings, which I think I’m still trying to figure out how I feel about everything. I mean, one just the hope that, to see a film on a big screen, it’s just something that really can’t be replicated, you know?
But it’s also good too, people that have reached out to me that maybe wouldn’t have had a chance to attend certain film festivals, had a chance to see the film. And so that’s important to me as well. It’s just, yeah. I feel like so many different things every single day but overall, I’m thankful that the film is getting out there and people are watching it and getting a chance to experience it, in whatever way they can. And I hope that someday it’ll screen in a cinema.
Well, I very much hope that too because I would like to watch it there myself. Definitely. Finally, I’m just personally interested as well, to hear about anything you might have coming next, in terms of writing or exhibitions or films.
Yeah. I mean, as soon as I have… It’s like a chat book sort of thing coming out in the next month or two with this text that I’ve been working on for the last few years called Perfidia. I think it’s something that’s guiding or preceding what I’m thinking about future projects look like, especially dealing with the idea of, I don’t know, like a more personal relationship to what it means to be in this country, United States and also being indigenous and understanding some of the traumas and historical traumas in ways that I feel like a lot of my work is about but just kind of offers an indirect way into the context that the things I’m responding to, to my work. One of the points of Perfidia texts is just looking at, I don’t know… Like wondering, if the colonizing countries, whether it’s like the U.K., Spain, France, Portugal, they still think about us, like what sort of relationship do European empires have with present day United States or Canada, and what sort of way is the indigenous sort of like passive history and trauma and genocide, affects Europeans. It’s kind of like for them as a breakup. It’s like, do you still think about me? Like, what sort of ways do we have in connecting our presence and how we exist and how we view ourselves, so even just like how I exist and how I view myself and all these different ways and burdens carry, and what does reconciliation look like? Not only between these different nations but also personally and what sort of conversations can be had and how does acknowledgement just to begin that conversation and feeling.
The last point you reminded me that I should probably ask you before we sign off, to speak to the listeners a bit about COUSIN and about the conversations that are coming out of that and what the collective is.
So a few years ago, some friends and I started talking about making a collective, or making a collective that necessarily wasn’t about making work but just about building a community and supporting indigenous experimental films or art or whatever. Because that’s often a gap, in terms of funding and support in the U.S. and in Canada. Indigenous experiments in media often fall between the cracks because it’s like not more like, mainstream filmmaking and it’s also not entirely in the art world. There’s a gap of support here and especially for indigenous work and so we really wanted to find a way to support artists and to platform artists and to give a space that builds a conversation around what indigenous experimental film looks like. I mean, because those terms are also very broad and very open, indigenous and experimental. It can be limiting but it also can be expansive. And so just like as a sort of flagged fly, we started this collective. It’s me, Alexandra Lazarowich, Adam Pirone and Adam Khalil and this past summer, we got through our first round of people that we were able to support financially. And that’s like 10 filmmakers, not only from the U.S. but also from Canada and from South America and from Mexico. And just trying to really expand on this idea of what indigenous means and just to support them, the products they want to make. We’re really looking forward to the work that they’ll produce as well as just like, however we can help them in their trajectory, with whatever they need. And also just trying to figure out what comes next and what are the conversations that we can have in this collective form, building community and building conversations and building dialogues and platforms, and just giving space for the artist to make the work that they want to make.
That’s really great. So we’ll all look out for more of what’s coming from COUSIN. And I guess I just wanted to say also, to wrap up, we don’t just select the new films by filmmakers that we’ve shown before, to show in our festival. We really loved Malni. For myself, I have been hugely, in all of your filmmaking and I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect and Malni delivered something that was different than what I was imagining but really just as strong and powerful. So we’re really excited that we’re able to show it in this year’s festival. And thank you for the conversations, Sky.
Thank you so much. It’s really good to show at the festival again.