Distant Shores
By Gabrielle Marceau

maɬni — towards the ocean, towards the shore
Dir. Sky Hopinka, U.S., Grasshopper Film

In one of his early short films, Wawa (2014), Sky Hopinka, who is of Ho-Chunk and Pechanga ancestry, gathers with a group to speak Chinuk Wawa, an Indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest. They seem convivial, but soon we hear a voiceover criticizing an unidentified person’s mastery of the language (“You don’t even know a little bit”) and describing his speech as just “talk, talk, talk.” Even the subtitles express doubt, offering several translations at once, overlaid onscreen until they are nearly impossible for the viewer to read.

It’s a film that explores the obtuseness of language, the slipperiness of translation, and the difficulty of mutual understanding. Many of his other shorts also express a similar ambiguity around place and memory, often pairing a voiceover recollection with disconnected footage; both seem impossibly distant, and we are only getting halves of different stories. But in Hopinka’s first feature film, maɬni — towards the ocean, towards the shore, he sets aside this mode and approaches his two subjects, Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, with an unfamiliar directness. Subtitles translate Mercier, who speaks in Cinuk Wawa, and Sahme, who speaks in English, throughout the film. There is one moment when we see two subtitles on the screen, but it’s because Sahme is standing close to a waterfall, and we can’t hear her. Where he once used text to complicate, here Hopinka wants us to understand.

maɬni follows Mercier and Sahme, both of Chinook ancestry, in their thirties and living in the Columbia River Basin, over several months as they anticipate the arrival of a child—Mercier’s second and Sahme’s first—and reflect on their elders who have died and gone, as Hopinka’s voiceover narration suggests, across the ocean to the spirit world. In intimate, almost private interviews, Sahme muses on raising her child in the living room where her grandmother passed away, and Mercier describes singing his grandfather’s song to his newborn son. Hopinka explores this cycle of life and death through striking images of the natural world—while walking through the woods, Mercier pauses over the log of a dead tree whose insides have turned fire red—and through a retelling of the Chinuk origin of death myth. In the tale, Lilu and T’alap’as each lose a child and consider whether or not their spirits should be able to return. In the story, it is decided that those who are dead are dead forever, but maɬni suggests that people do come back in the things they have imparted to their descendants.

Hopinka takes enormous care with his subjects, giving them ample room to tell their stories. Other than an evocative shot of dancers captured with a low shutter speed, bright trails following the dancers like spirits, maɬni doesn’t employ the same startling visual effects as Hopinka’s short films, in which images are abstracted into streaks of color, ghostly streams, or even peeled off the frame in an arresting shot of beachgoers from Fainting Spells (2018). Hopinka aims to show things clearly, and while this film doesn’t always match the thrilling visual impact of his experimental shorts, the result of this direct approach is a complex portrait of contemporary Indigenous life.

maɬni is ambiguous, too, as it toggles between familiarity and distance. In the film’s magnetic centerpiece—a gathering of the Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde—the camera lingers inches away from a group of drummers, but the sound is muffled as if we are hearing it underwater. And although intimate, the interviews with Mercier and Sahme are only providing fragments of their story; they both seem to have emerged on the other side from a difficult time, but the details are left unsaid. Perhaps Hopinka avoids these parts of the story out of care for his subjects, who are also his friends, or maybe he wants to break from a tired narrative. Sahme alludes to her sobriety and getting into trouble and suggests that her grandmother struggled with similar things—a cycle, she says, she wants to break.

Hopinka emphasizes Mercier’s restlessness, noting in the narration that he is always going, always singing, always drumming: “Who is he searching for?” Travel recurs in Hopinka’s films, a sense of continual movement and change. Sahme notes that the waterfall she visits looks different than it did the month before. When Mercier’s son is born, he tells us: “His name is Vincent, and he has changed us.” maɬni speaks to the persistence of knowledge, tradition, and familial love over time and through personal and political tumult, immersing us in its subject’s lives—showing us their daily activities; at home with their families, driving in their cars, or taking walks in the woods—while calling back to a long line of loss and renewal. Indeed, Hopinka is calling back to the very beginning of time through repeated footage of Tomanowos, the meteorite that Oregon’s Clamackas tribe held sacred as a healing force that united earth, sky, and water. The shots of Tomanowos on gleaming and impersonal display as the “Willamette Meteorite” at the American Museum of Natural History in New York stand in stark contrast to the film’s natural spaces and personal narratives. The Confederated Tribes of the Grande Ronde fought to repatriate the meteorite and return it to the elements it animated for centuries. It’s a striking scene reminiscent of the ongoing struggle to redress the harm of settler colonialism.

The film ends with a sequence that follows Mercier and a friend on a canoe trip. They land on a shore, walk across a beach, through a towering rock formation, and out to another coast, seeking ocean and shore in a perpetual loop. In the scenes’ towering compositions, radiant colors, and mellifluous narration, the two friends seem to be somewhere mythic. Hopinka narrates all of these stories (Lilu and T’alap’as, Mercier, and Sahme’s) in the same tone and tense, aligning his two subjects with these legendary figures along a perpetual filial line. maɬni is a thoughtful, occasionally beguiling study of Indigenous life in the Pacific Northwest. Hopinka’s vantage point, both up-close and expansive, takes in a sliver of time in two individual lives, while keeping an eye on infinity.