November is Native American Heritage Month, and to celebrate, the Sundance Institute is running a weekly series, Vision & Voice: Indigenous Cinema Now, profiling artists who have been supported by the Institute’s Indigenous Program throughout its history. Over the course of the month, Indigenous Program associate director Adam Piron has talked to Navajo filmmaker Blackhorse Lowe, Native Hawaiian writer/director Ciara Lacy, and Seneca-Cayuga filmmaker Erica Tremblay.
Today, to close out the month, Piron is talking to Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga), whose feature maɬni—towards the ocean, towards the shore premiered at the 2020 Festival. The poetic experimental documentary circles the origin of the death myth from the Chinookan people in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s currently playing virtual cinemas and festivals around the world. You can also see 10 of Hopinka’s short films—including previous Festival selections like Jáaji Approx., Visions of an Island, and Fainting Spells—right now on the Criterion Channel.
Below, Hopinka talks about centering Indigenous perspectives in experimental storytelling, how Native audiences respond to his work, and how his poetry has slowly worked its way into his filmography.
A still from Sky Hopinka's "Visions of an Island."
ADAM PIRON: Within your films, your distinct use of landscapes, music, and sound design are all trademarks of what is recognizable of your style. I think you can see some of that from your experiences growing up on the powwow circuit and even being a powwow dancer. Have you seen your upbringing in that world play into your work in other ways that might not be might not be obvious to other people?
SKY HOPINKA: It's hard for me to pinpoint when I first got into filmmaking because a lot of the things I've experienced throughout my life, whether it was growing up traveling around the powwow circuit with my family or watching films with my grandma or, you know, even just like taking half a semester of a black-and-white photography class when I was 18. They led me to film in a roundabout way, I suppose, or when I found film, it just became such a nexus for all of my interests that I tried and explored throughout my life.
I've always been drawn to the road or just traveling; it's something I've been doing my entire life. You know, just a lot of memories in the back of my family's van driving around powwows, camping out, or just visiting these new locations that were defined by powwow grounds. Powwow grounds were always the thing that centered the experience. It was always familiar yet different, and that really made me think a lot about how to photograph these different landscapes. They all become a marker of something that’s always been a way for me to understand the present as well as the past in terms of creating memories or trying to establish a relationship to a place about what had happened in that landscape.
AP: Something else that sticks out to me about your style is that it's observational but it also leans very much into your own subjectivity, yet at no point is it authoritative at all on what it’s looking at. It’s not fiction—people would categorize it as documentary in terms of how it looks at things, but it goes against everything most viewers would like to put it in that container. Do you find yourself actively pushing against that kind of labeling?
SH: I think my introduction to experimental film was more through essay or even ethnographic sorts of experimental film. It offered a framework to then think about my own work and think about it in terms of engineering and representation.
I was really interested in how to not be concerned in those things, or how to not make work that was explicitly in conversation with histories of an ethnography and representation, because they prioritise the conversation toward the colonial gaze and toward white anthropologists or white ethnographers who made films a hundred years ago. I wasn’t necessarily interested in having that conversation; I just wanted to use these tools to then think about what the potential is for this sort of cinema. And I think it's really exciting to do that.
It's empowering to realize that you don't have to make films for a white audience and consider whether or not they understand the cultural references or not.
It's empowering to realize that you don't have to make films for a white audience and consider whether or not they understand the cultural references or not. I think that's enabled me to then explore further what it means to make work for an Indigenous audience and even to try and answer the question white audiences tend to have, which is: “I’m watching this right now. So then do Native people see this? Do Native people get to watch this stuff?” It's funny because it always centers on them, toward the audience or toward the idea of who this is for, because they're experiencing it in a certain way. It's a really complicated thing I'm still trying to wrap my head around.
I think it does speak to this idea of no matter how intentional you are about who an audience is, whether they're Indigenous or not, the dominant audience will still always center themselves in the conversation or enjoy exotifying the other end that they feel in that regard. A lot of what I've been interested in doing in the last few years has been about exploring more specific aspects of my tribe and my culture in my beliefs and my friendships, and having my own subjectivity account for a lack of authority or account for the authority that is given to me by the person who is holding the camera and editing and making these choices.
How can I hold myself accountable and at the same time make work for a specific audience and resist the urge of the pull of the larger white audience to center themselves in the construction of the film and and even the viewing of the film?
AP: The approach that you take is also very collage-like. Beyond even the editing of assemblage of the film’s form, you do that with the mediums that you’re choosing to work with, whether it’s shooting on actual film or employing handwriting in the frame or even playing with text in a way that is directly related to the language spoken. There's again this idea of a white-centered cinema where it's very much about having things explained to them, but I think with your films, the way that they center themselves is almost pan-Indian in some regard. Like a collage, they offer one piece of a larger whole. The approach is more about asserting itself as one of many rather than the thing itself. With that in mind, how have you found that Indigenous audiences have reacted to your film?
SH: What you just said actually made me think about what the experience is like when you’re meeting a different Native person, going to a different reservation or a Native community. A lot of the conversation is: “Oh, you do this here? We do this there.” It’s sharing of values, traditions, and ways of moving through the world, and sharing different cultures through a conversation.
I never repeat those conversations to a non-Native person, but it’s just like that: “You know? Oh, you know. This is how we do it.” That’s just something that's part of the experience of traveling and visiting different Native communities in similar sorts of ways. That’s how I feel how my films function when I share it with different Indigenous audiences.
I try to not have a voice for all Native people and speak on their behalf. It’s just me sharing how I relate to my father in this way or the landscape in this way or a Ho-Chunk belief in this way or reincarnation in this way. The best conversations I’ve had with Native people that have seen the films is just like a sharing and a dialogue.
I think that’s really what I want the films to do—just to have a conversation about the travel and about the movement between the landscapes that we have been doing for a very long time pre-contact.
I think that’s really what I want the films to do—just to have a conversation about the travel and about the movement between the landscapes that we have been doing for a very long time pre-contact. I think the best experiences I've had have been about that sharing, but broadly more specific to the nuances of being Native in this country.
"małni—towards the ocean, towards the shore" played the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
AP: Your recent work spans across mediums as well too. You’ve recently had a show in New York City, a museum survey at Bard College (Centers of Somewhere), your photograph series “Breathings,” as well as a book of your poetry called Perfidia. How do you see all of your work addressing your creative concerns and being in dialogue with each other?
SH: Since I was a kid, I wanted to be a writer. I was an English lit major in college for 10 years, but I never got my degree in it. I love stories, but I could never really quite figure out how my writing style or my writing practice fit in into poetry or novels or essays or whatever. At the time, it was just something I wasn’t really that good at either, but it was still something I enjoyed doing. Music was the same thing. That’s something I’ve continued to do since I was like 13 or 14 years old.
It wasn’t really until I made Visions of an Island in 2015 that I included a little bit of my own writing. It just felt like a risk for me, and then I got more and more comfortable including my own voice and writing. As I’ve gotten more confident and felt more proficient in my filmmaking practice to then return to music, writing and photography and use my experiences with filmmaking and even just the feelings of confidence to then go back into writing.
Perfidia is a text I’ve been working on the last two, three years now. It's popped up in a lot of different projects, and I’ve been okay with drawing from the text to apply it to a channel installation or to a photo series or to a number of different projects here and there and then just being able to see how they could be woven together or how they can be part of this larger web of a project or an idea that speaks to one another and communicates on different angles.
That's been really exciting and fun, trying to realize this project and all the paths these different ideas are taking and seeing how I can also circle it back to this other idea or go on a whole tangent with a photo series and then see how I can bring it all back to this bigger idea from this other project. It’s a bit of a juggling act, but it’s also been really rewarding.
AP: Do you feel that you’ve solidified your voice, or is it something you're still questioning and trying to find your way with some of it?
SH: I don’t know if this is a distinction, but I’m not necessarily trying to find my way; I'm trying to see what’s in front of me. When I first got into filmmaking, a lot of it was just doing things on my own and doing things like watching YouTube videos or going to public access TV station classes, talking to friends who are filmmakers, and just learning all this stuff and never quite feeling that I was doing it the right way. I had a sense of shame about not going to film school or art school. I was self-taught and saved up for a camera. What I learned from that is that you don’t really need permission from people to tell you to fall in terms of whatever cinematic form of film you’re making. You know, you don’t have to do that.
You don’t really need permission from people to tell you to fall in terms of whatever cinematic form of film you’re making.
I think that's opened up a lot more possibilities for me to try different things with the camera or with the editing or with the writing of the photographs and not feel beholden to a tradition that is usually grounded in a Western idea or framework. It took me a lot of time to get to that point. It’s just just exciting to see other filmmakers and other others that are Indigenous that are making things that are not typical or bound to a history of the moving image that's important to recognize as well as to break from.
MORE ABOUT SKY HOPINKA
Sky Hopinka’s video work centers around personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture, and the play between the known and the unknowable. His work has played at various festivals including ImagineNATIVE Media + Arts Festival, Images, Wavelengths, Ann Arbor Film Festival, Sundance, Antimatter, Chicago Underground Film Festival, FLEXfest, and Projections. His work was a part of the 2016 Wisconsin Triennial and the 2017 Whitney Biennial.