małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, 2020.
Directed by Sky Hopinka.
This film follows Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier’s wanderings through each of their worlds as they wonder through and contemplate the afterlife, rebirth, and the place in-between. Spoken mostly in chinuk wawa, their stories are departures from the Chinookan origin of death myth, with its distant beginning and circular shape.
Experimental film can often be an alibi for laziness, an excuse for a filmmaker to cobble together some B-roll footage in an attempt at soulful eloquence. Thankfully, Sky Hopinka can’t be accused of anything resembling neglect in his experimental documentary małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore. All his filmmaking choices are deeply deliberate, from the sounds of nature almost dominating the dialogue at points, to allowing filmmaking efforts to be visible rather than imperceptible, such as the camera being picked up and set down.
Hopinka doesn’t explore the ocean as attempt to permeate his film with it, or rather, what it means to him and the Indigenous community he immerses his audience into in his own poetically respectful fashion. małni would feel more genuine than most films about this particular community anyway, given that Hopinka is Ho-Chunk who descends from the Pechanga Band of Luiseño Native Americans, but Hopinka also holds the white gaze accountable for how it affects others, even as he refuses to cater to it or even fully explain the myths he’s exploring to the unfamiliar. Water itself, be it rain, river, waterfall, or yes, the ocean, also earns our respect soon enough, since it rules over all in małni, even dialogue, which shifts from English to the tribal language, often including subtitles in the latter when his subjects speak English.
Said subjects Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, who never meet on-screen, are some of the high points in the film, effectively grounding the doc in Hopinka’s humanistic and conservationist values. In the filmmaker’s capable hands, questions of Indigenous identity, history, and how to reconcile both in today’s complicated environment, are effortlessly complementary to lofty questions concerning humanity’s place in nature and the greater universe. His reverence for the natural world, everyday life, and most beautifully, his depiction of Native gatherings, is contagious, even if it might be a bit too idealized. It’s hard to blame him, since Jordan and Sweetwater are two remarkable people who have managed to find peace after turbulent times in their lives, but both of them, especially the pregnant Sweetwater, risk becoming concepts themselves. The nature of the genre means concepts tend to drive characters rather than the traditional reversal, but the depiction of Sweetwater and her impending motherhood verges dangerously close to angelic. Then again, if actual flaws are the only missing ingredient from the beauty and human frailty abounding in małni, Hopinka could do much worse for his first feature.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★
Andrea Thompson is a writer, editor, and film critic who is also the founder and director of the Film Girl Film Festival. She is a member of the Chicago Indie Critics and runs her own site, A Reel Of One’s Own. She has no intention of becoming any less obsessed with cinema, comics, or nerdom in general.