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In Conversation with filmmaker Sky Hopinka
by Matt Pifko

In light of his recent exhibition at Emerson College last fall, editor Matt Pifko interviews Indigenous artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka. Touching on his approach to the art of filmmaking, to his views on film languages both spoken and unspoken, Hopinka shares with us how he developed his craft as an artist, as well as his views toward the future of experimental film. To find out more about Sky Hopinka, his work, and his teachings, check out his personal website. There, you can watch some of his shorter works, many of which can also be found streaming on the Criterion Channel, where his 2020 feature-length project, Maɬni — towards the ocean, towards the shore, is now playing. Some of his shorter works can also be found streaming through Ubuweb.

LI: Hi, thank you so much for joining me.

Hopinka: Yeah, happy to talk!

LI: Maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore is your longest work to date, about eighty minutes. Had you known for a while that you wanted to make a longer project, or was the length dictated by the subject matter, coming about more organically?

Hopinka: I have always wanted to make a feature film since I first started thinking about filmmaking some ten years ago. Right before I got into experimental film, I was thinking about narratives, like Apichatpong or Bela Tarr’s work, that sort of stuff, and so it was always in the back of my head to try and do something feature length. But I guess over the last six or seven years I was primarily working with the short form, and had been feeling like that was what I could do with what I had, or what I was interested in doing with these short films. I guess after a [period of] time I felt like I was ready to try feature length film, [and] I had gained enough confidence in my practice and enough of a foundation to try something a bit more ambitious for me, which would be the feature length, [as well as] trying things that I couldn’t necessarily do or was never quite satisfied with in the shorter works, such as duration, or working with a sound person, or even thinking about how to structure a larger story that moves between different spaces and is a bit more slower paced than my previous works.

Image still from Maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (2020)

LI: Time and duration have always been very important in your films, whether it’s your shorts or this feature. Time will often expand, or contract, or run forward and backward. When you are first brainstorming and conceptualizing your films, have you already decided how long each individual shot should last, how everything should fit together? Or is it more something that you work out in the editing process? Or some combination of the two?

Hopinka: I would say it’s a combination. I mean I really don’t like to let my camera run until I get what I get, I mean I really don’t like going through footage, y’know? The editing process (laughs).

LI: Right, of course.

Hopinka: So I always have duration in mind while shooting and that’s just from earlier experiences of knowing I turned the camera off too soon, or wishing something was ten or fifteen seconds longer. Things like that. I’m always thinking about duration and what the possibilities are for holding a shot while shooting, whether it’s a pan around a landscape or following a person through a space as they’re ostensibly guiding me. So while shooting, especially in Maɬni, there were a few shots where I’d be holding for a while and I knew that this was something that I was going to use in the film or that the duration or the movement through these different spaces was going to be a part of how that would work, or how it would fit in the film. I didn’t necessarily have too much planned out in terms of a feature and what I wanted it to be or look like until the editing stage.

LI: I think of so many of those long shots that are very hypnotic in Maɬni, as well as in a lot of your other works. This latest film, and really all of your films, play with language. There’s a beautiful back and forth fluidity between Chinook Wawa and English, and I was curious — did it ever feel as though translation and language were barriers that you had to overcome, or was it all as fluid as it appears in your films?

Hopinka: The first short film that I made, Wawa, an experimental short film in 2013 or 2014, was me really buttting heads with all of those challenges that I was encountering or had encountered up until that point in my life in learning language. And really seeing Peter Rose’s The Pressures of the Text opened up so many different ideas and opportunities for techniques in how to deal with these different confluences of language and translation and authority, and after having seen that film, [I started] borrowing some techniques [and] thinking about [those] I had seen [used] in other places, [like] the overlapping subtitles, the lack of translation for certain sequences. I think Wawa was a really foundational film for me to make in order to start thinking about the complications of text and how it is seen in a film. Since then, I’ve worked through a few different approaches, none as aggressive as in Wawa, around translation and subtitles, [with] what’s translated and what’s not translated, [in] films like Jáaji Approx. or Anti-Objects. With Maɬni, I had tried a lot of different things, and this was a way to not necessarily focus on my issues with translation and subtitles and authority, but to pull back a bit and let Jordan and Sweetwater speak in their languages and to provide as much of a flat interface as I could for an audience to hear what they’re saying, to read what they’re saying, and whether that’s in Chinook or whether that’s in English, [treating subtitles] equally for both languages [in] all sorts of ways, [trying to] provide as much of a clear path to what they’re saying and what an audience might be hearing.

LI: The multiple languages and subtitles that are bouncing back and forth in that film are so interesting. I feel like you talk frequently about this even playing field for all languages, which also applies to image and sound in your films. It’s not as if the images are simply telling the story or a lot of times your soundscapes are giving us half the story here. I was curious how you go about that layering process, especially films like Fainting Spells where there’s so many layers of sound and image and video. How do you build that complex soundscape from the ground up?

Hopinka: Well, [I made] Fainting Spells just after Dislocation Blues, which was a film that more or less features a talking head interview and two audio sources for interviews with dialogue. It was a very dialogue heavy film that I didn’t do a lot of visual abstractions with, so after that, starting with Fainting Spells, I really wanted to do something without any dialogue with a lot of soundscapes, with a lot of music and abstractions visually. That was a film where I just started throwing everything in it that I thought was interesting or appropriate and then whittling it down from there.

I had been thinking about the opening and closing song in Fainting Spells, a song from Ramiro Ramirez, for a number of years. One day, I made some recording of the loop on a record player at the end of a track, a little bit of skip that could go on indefinitely. I had no idea what I was going to do with it. It’s just a process of gathering sounds and either trying to slow them down or speed them up or adjust the equalization and effects like reverb or compressor and just trying to whittle out what other things could be expressed in a scene or a section of a film [in which] I don’t want to rely on dialogue or the use of expository gestures to do, and from there just trying to build and think about the left and right channels, thinking about what the different range of frequencies can do, how they can interact with one another. One of my favorite sort of things to do with any track I encounter is to go and play around with the EQ on it and see what sort of things are hidden in it that might be overpowered by other frequencies. Oftentimes there are things that might be particularly beautiful to me in there or really striking or really rhythmic, so it’s a way of searching through these materials I’ve gathered and seeing what’s in there and how they could all possibly be put together.

Image still from Fainting Spells (2018)

LI: You talk about messing around with the vocal tracks and finding hidden rhythms. There’s this sense of unwinding and bending the rules of what we traditionally know for cinematic language or even written or verbal language. When I watch your work I find myself thinking about who film language is for and who is able to speak it. Is it intuitive to make films into narratives, or is that just what we are exposed to all our life?

Hopinka: I would say both. I mean, I do think it’s a part of human nature to try to find the story in anything, and I think that spans culture. What those stories look like or how they’re structured is up to the individual culture. Art is expressed in different ways and I guess what I really appreciate about coming to experimental film is seeing that there has [always] been a long tradition of questioning what is film, what is narrative, what is story, and what are the things that we’re thinking about [in regards to] what we’re seeing, how they’re seen, how they’re structured together. I think of a film like Poetic Justice by Hollis Frampton that is using these tools we recognize and trying to apply them to their own means or purposes. That’s what I think is really exciting about seeing work that is more on the side of the experimental realm, is that [through] cinema, as well as these structures that we, in Western society and American society, are accustomed to by nature of [living] in it, can use these tools to tweak them and adapt them to our own cultural purposes, sociological purposes, beliefs, even our own cosmological purposes. I think there’s a constant play and pull between the things you know and see and the things you are told are right, or wrong, or normal… whatever that is (laughs). 

LI: You’ve now mentioned Hollis Frampton, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Peter Rose. There’s such a wealth of experimental filmmakers and even within this brief history of cinema there’s so much to dig through. Do you find consuming other peoples experimental work and researching other experimental methods, this ground that other people have tread to be creatively fruitful?

Hopinka: Yeah. If I see something that blows my mind and I really like it, I don’t really want to watch it again, y’know? I remembered watching James Benning’s American Dreams (lost and found) and I really just love that film, but I only saw it once, and I didn’t want to watch it over and over again, because I just wanted the effect that the film had on me and the techniques and the mood and the music to not necessarily be imprinted on my mind like, this is the way that I have to do it. Or, this has already been done, so I can’t do it. 

So as I was making Fainting Spells, I was thinking about how to incorporate the text in the film and I thought of scrolling text, thinking, “Oh yeah, I saw this in James Benning’s films, this is something that could work for this film,” but it wasn’t quite hitting right. I was trying different typefaces, and then I went back and watched American Dream (lost and found) again, actually I think it was to show to one of my classes that I was teaching, and I had totally forgotten that [the text] was actually handwriting. And that was kind of the key right there. I thought, “Oh shit, this could really work for this film.”

In that regard, I think it’s an example of ways that I get really inspired by experimental work and seeing what people do, but I didn’t necessarily want to become beholden to what’s been done or to treat it like “this is James Benning’s technique,” or “this is this person’s technique,” but rather, how can I do these things to be in communication with what they’ve done, whether it’s Benning or Rose or Frampton or Jawad Sharif? I think that the more you see, the more you’re exposed to, the more you can get inspired by the better, but if you see too much it can [become] paralyzing in the sense that you know too much, you’ve seen too much, you just become an encyclopedia of who did what in which film and you know you can’t [repeat it].

A 120mm photograph from image series “Breathings” (2020)

LI: Much has been said about film’s ability to preserve and track history. But often, your films feel like they are looking toward the future. How does this idea of the future and the road ahead affect your art?

Hopinka: When I first started making films, when I first picked up a camera, or even first thought about it, a question that my friends and I had was: what do these films look like if they’re made for us? What does an indigenous cinema for a contemporary indigenous audience look like? Oftentimes, the history of indigenous cinema is either focused on trauma, tragedy, poverty, or historical romanticization. Those things are all well and good, but they’re not the entirety of the indigenous experience today, and the question of the future always felt a bit radical in that sense.

Around the same time, there was also the rise of indigenous futurisms as a literary form, like the work of Grace Dillon and many other authors who were imagining indigenous people’s place in science-fiction, or afrofuturism. That was inspiring, but it was maybe too far in the future for me. I was really interested in the present, like what are the small futures, like the ones of tomorrow? The ones of next year? Even the ones of right now? Those are the questions that have been foundational in my thinking about what indigenous cinema “looks like,” and what can I do that is relevant to the questions I have around the history of ethnography and anthropology, [as well as] the way those systems function in terms of how we view ourselves. What are the things I can do to pose questions, to offer propositions through these films. What do we do with myth? How do we make new myths? Where do myths fit in our lives today? And — how can we continue to work with language, what does a shift in language look like? Chinook Wawa has never been used in a feature length film before, aside from First Cow, which had some Chinook Wawa in it as well as some people from Maɬni, which is amazing. But what do these languages look like in cinematic form, in narrative form, in the different registers that might not have been utilized a hundred years ago? It’s all exciting and nothing to be afraid of, but I think there are a lot of considerations to be had around these different issues and these different elements that make up an indigenous culture.

Installation view of Sky Hopinka: Centers of Somewhere (2020–2021) at CCS Bard Galleries

LI: What you’re saying reminds me of this line in Lore: “And we can take it easy with the weights of history resting on the floor.” It seems that there is something freeing about finding new cinematic ground, new ways to tell stories. Do you think it’s possible after nearly a hundred years of a dominant narrative form of cinema that we might be able to build a new cinematic language? 

Hopinka: I do. I definitely do. I think of these films as questions and propositions that, I hope, spark dialogue around what we do and what the things we’re watching look like. There’s always going to be a dominant form of cinema, especially with Netflix and Hulu and Apple and their investments in old studios or their own studios, but the question is: what sort of risks are they willing to take in order to expand the conversation of what cinema looks like? I mean the Criterion Channel is a great addition to the streaming platforms and streaming services in that they give a lot of platforms to experimental film, more so than experimental film has really ever had before. The more people that are watching experimental works, the more that people are watching the sort of films that blow their mind, or make them uncomfortable, or challenge their notions of what they expect, [the more] it excites people. I think there’s a constant evolution and change in terms of what we’re watching and how we’re watching it, [as well as] what we’re making and how we’re making it, whether that’s by one’s self or on a phone. Even ten, twelve years ago, certainly twenty years ago, I couldn’t have been making the films I’m making now because I wouldn’t be able to afford the gear. The DSLR explosion ten or twelve years ago really opened the door for a lot of filmmakers to buy a general camera and shoot HD, to produce things with decent quality. It’s about technological advances and what these people are doing with these cameras they didn’t have [access to] before. What are they making? What are they interested in making? I guess it’s a long winded way of saying the language around cinema and what we’re doing is constantly evolving and I think that that’s a good thing… maybe.