As can be seen in artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s experimental documentary “maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” (2020), film has the power to evoke transcendent experience.
Himself a member of Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk nation, Hopinka attended Portland State University, in Oregon, where he befriended members of the Chinook nation from that area and learned their language, Chinuk Wawa. In the film he follows two of these friends — Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier — while they ponder the past and present, life and death, family and estrangement, and the meaning of their indigenous identity.
Set in the fairy tale-like beauty of the Pacific Northwest, the film captures a numinous world that shimmers between the visionary and natural. Hopinka’s images of the sea, mountains, and forest pulse with color. The film’s episodic, spiraling structure flows like a reverie. A rhythmic synthesizer soundtrack (composed by Thad Kellstadt), Hopinka’s poetic voice-over narrative in Chinuk Wawa, and performances of haunting traditional songs add to the incantatory effect.
In the third trimester of her pregnancy, Sahme wanders across brooks and through the woods and speaks of how she feels the presence of her deceased grandmother. In one sequence she slips into the hidden space behind a waterfall, which she describes as one of her favorite places. Then she impetuously steps into the water. “Didn’t expect me to do that, did you?” she says. “Now it’s your turn” (the filmmaker passes on the invitation).
In contrast to these idyllic moments, she is also seen at home in a dim room where her mother sleeps, snoring gently, in the background. Sahme says she is close to her mother, but also shares a similar troubled past. Like her, Sahme had once gotten involved with the wrong crowd and engaged in dubious, dangerous behavior. Though sober now and self-confident, she can’t help looking into the future with some trepidation.
Mercier, married and with a daughter, is expecting a son. He speaks in Chinuk Wawa, wears his hair in a long braid, and attends ceremonies to keep the culture alive. He says these things give him strength; and he hopes to pass the language, customs, lore, and music of his people on to his children. But he sees some young people shying away from these traditions because they have been abused by whites for practicing it.
Like Sahme, he worries about the future. In a recurrent scene he walks along a path through a radiant forest where even the rust-red pulp of a rotten log is aglow. At one point Hopinka asks in voice-over, “Where is he going?” As if in answer Hopinka recounts an ancient legend about the origin of death as recalled years before by “Jordan’s grandfather’s grandfather.” In this story two primal beings, T’ala’as and Lilu, each sire a child. Lilu’s son gets sick and dies. “What if we were to make it so that when people die they come back on the fifth day?” he asks T’ala’as. T’ala’as disagrees and says when a person dies they will be dead “for always.”
But the film resists such finality, or at least expands the limitations of mortality, to embrace a transcendent merging of the human spirit with the natural world. A sequence near the end seems to affirm this notion. A beam of sunlight passes through a womb-like opening in a cliff and illuminates a stretch of sand. Mercier and a companion walk through the opening to the light and the ocean beyond.
“maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore” is available online at the DocYard, May 7-13. Hopinka will participate in a live virtual Q&A on May 12, at 7 p.m. hosted by Cass Gardiner,… which will be available on Zoom and Facebook Live.
Peter Keough can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.