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Thread: maɬni towards the ocean, towards the shore (Sky Hopinka 2020) - Metrograph release

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    maɬni towards the ocean, towards the shore (Sky Hopinka 2020) - Metrograph release


    Opened yesterday, April 2, 2021 at Metrograph in New York

    Two meditative interviews with Pacific Northwest Native Americans

    The title "maɬni" (pronounced "moth-nee" uses the letter ɬ (capital letter L) denoting a "th" sound, a symbol adopted for transliteration of Native American languages. As explained in a review by Antonio D Sison in National Catholic Reporter, "maɬni" denotes the "cyclic ebb and flow of life, death and afterlife inspirit" and this film is "a meditative immersion in Chinook Indian worldview." Hopinka, who directed, shot, and edited,has made a number of documentary shorts related to Native American experience, indigenous myths and language acquisition; this is his documentary feature-length debut. Hopinka, who directed, shot, and edited,has made a number of documentary shorts related to Native American experience, indigenous myths and language acquisition; this is his documentary feature-length debut.

    It is important to focus on sound and language because more than half of this film is largely in the near-extinct Chinuk Wawa language. Hopinka learned this language in his twenties in Portland, Oregon where he was a student at Portland State. The filmmaker is much concerned with how culture and experience are embedded in language, and lost when a language dies out, a central fact of Native American experience. The language here is a whole story to itself, which is not told, but left to us to ponder and learn about on our own. This film follows two people, separately (but do they get together at the end, for the most spectacular sequence?). They are Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme.

    Jordan, who speaks to the camera, to Hopinka, only in Chinuk Wawa (as does the filmmaker in is occasional voiceover narrations), drives a truck. He talks about gaining the courage to grow his hair long, the native way, again; he says young boys do it, and then are laughed at and called girls and cut it short, but it makes him feel good. It is an affirmation of identity. He talks about his young son, Vincent: he says they learn from him, and recounts that an indigenous saying goes that a young child comes into the world knowing everything, and then forgets.

    Sweetwater, who speaks in English (with subtitles, presumably in Chinuk Wawa), is bright-eyed and smiling. She is pregnant, in the third trimester. She speaks of having lived a life somewhat like her grandmother, who raised her and nephews together; of her getting sober and of how things might have been different, presumably better, had this happened sooner in her life. A scene where they visit a waterfall, one of her favorite places, she says, and she bathes in it, in all her clothes, smiling, she seems purified and happy.

    This film has been called "stunning" in a review. Ela Bittencourt, Hyperallergic, called it "Rapturous" and said it "Feels like a richly woven ghost story." He, who has seen the filmmaker's shorts as I have not, says they "often" are in the nature of "dense, syncretic visual poems." These comments are not untrue, but they may be influenced by viewings of Hopinka's short films. Here, in talking to the two subjecdts, there is no effort at cinematic pyrotechnics.

    Spiritual matters are repeatedly touched on, however. In particular there is consideration of the Chinookan people’s circular origin-of-death myth, sourced at the film's end to a report recorded from an elder in the 1930's, probing questions about humanity’s place both on earth and in other worlds. The spiritual, thoughtful mood of the film is underlined by Thad Kellstadt's score, which at its best is very striking. But the virtue of this film is that it's often so understated, and in an interview Hopinka has said he eschewed fancy devices (the experimentalism of a number of his short films) and that likes film about his friends to be "flat," unmediated, not getting in the way.

    Perhaps in the same spirit, the film does not hit hard on a single agenda but lets you ruminate about what you like among a number of suggested topics: Native American world views, the struggle to maintain a hold on the culture, the ravages of American Indians everywhere from their near-extermination by white people to their persistent poverty, poor education, and addiction problems, together with the pride and collective memory, sometimes through joint celebrations, as well as through language, and the pursuit of an indigenous world-view, including the myth of the origin of death. All of this casually flows through the film.

    There is a big giant canoe event shown where the boats are awesome in size, and impressive the number of people who gather to bear them along from the water. There is a big Grand Ronde Community where men drum and sing and the women dance. There is the song Jordan sings to the camera that he is teaching to Vincent, and the talk of always drumming. An unspoken story is that of the land and the people: that this land in its pristine beauty once belonged to the native peoples, it was taken from them, but it still survives and they still preserve their bond with it. Throughout the film its scenes often visit the natural world of the Pacific Northwest. Sweetwater mentions the beauty of the woodlands, and we can't but notice that, and how there are still swathes of splendid unspoiled forest, and the eternal Pacific Northwest landscape of ocean and shore. These include the grand rocky landscape with a great gap in its midst that leads out to the Pacific. Walking up to and out through that - to superb, haunting music - is a hard act to follow and Hopinka edits wisely in ending with it. Like much of the film, it's a scene that's both offhand and spectacular.

    Sky Hopinka was born in Ferdale, Washington. He teaches teaches film, video, and animation at Simon Fraser University (British Columbia, Canada). He has taught Chinuk Wawa, used here. It is a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. It once seems to have a kind of lingua franca in the whole Pacific Northwest. One would like to see a documentary on Native American languages. After making this feature, Hopinka has said he is "tired" and needs to stop and take stock, but I hope he will make more films. He has a distinctive touch.

    maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, 82 mins., debuted at Sundance Jan. 2020, and showed at a dozen other mostly documentary festivals, including True/False and DocuFest and shortly to include the San Francisco festival. Friday April 2, 2021 it opens for a one-week exclusive digital enagagement at, rolling out in subsequent weeks nationwide starting 4/9 in Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, D.C, Philadelphia, Denver, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, etc. and will also be available online. A Grasshopper Film release.
    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 04-04-2021 at 09:59 AM.


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