About water, about death

by Fernando Chaves Espinach.


With each issue, Fernando takes us into the world of creative documentary through a piece relating to the volume's theme, opening us to the infinite possibilities of this genre that blurs the boundaries between reality, experience and imagination.

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Maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, Sky Hopinka’s first feature documentary, reflects about death and life by the water shore

The sea: where people go when they are gone, where the world of spirits is. We start by the shore, above the waves, place of the first story: that of life, that of death. We go up the northwest coast of the United States towards the interior of two persons, Jordan Mercier and Sweetwater Sahme, in a spiritual journey inspired by the myths of the Chinook nation to which they belong. As the myth related to the origin of death is narrated, we deepen into our characters, that speak of their own cycles to die and be reborn, to reencounter the spiritual world. 


maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore (2020) is the first feature documentary by Sky Hopinka, a Ho-Chunk filmmaker who has been crafting short films in a very personal, poetic style concerned with language and memory, rooted in his community’s experiences. The film, presented at the Berwick Film and Media Arts Festival, is a conversation with two characters that are going through transition moments in their lives; it is a reflection on death, life and their cycles, told almost entirely in Chinuk Wawa language. 


“Where do we go now?” wonders the voice of the filmmaker at the beginning, marching towards the sea. We will see different approaches by Jordan and Sweetwater to their heritage and their intimate memory, through what they tell Hopinka with ease. Jordan speaks to him about his long braided hair, and about how it makes him feel more connected to his culture, with clarity of who his people are. Sweetwater, who is expecting a baby, tells him that she plans to give birth in the room where her grandmother died, one of those persons you can see “although they have crossed into the world of spirits”. 


We float in the middle, spectators of a spiritual transformation made out of images. The film attracts the attention towards itself and to the artisan character of its production (Hopinka films, directs and edits), as if inviting us to the stage of its realization. We talk to the characters at the same time that Hopinka does, so to speak, although we don’t entirely penetrate Chinuk Wawa’s rich linguistic fabric, which appears in the subtitles when the characters speak english. If this is a story of how myths endure in the lives of their characters, it is also a celebration of tongue, a festivity of its possibilities and its own existence. 


We attend other festivities too: encounters between Native American people that get together to commemorate their own. We float among them with the camera, which navigates the present in search of signs from the past. Attentive to the spiritual resonance of his work, Hopinka allows a breath for the doubts, beliefs and convictions of his characters, who surround us with their warm consideration of the actual world. We believe, with Saltwater, in her grandmother’s supervision of her future childbirth; we believe in the renewal that the waterfall under which she submerges provides.


In an interview with Kinescope, Hopinka wonders how to represent deep history in a contemporary setting, as a guide to navigate the present. “Understanding how you and your ancestors existed in this landscape forms who you are today. It is a source of power and connection that is resistant to assimilation policies, or policies of race or genocide, that happened in this country over the last 150 years”, says the filmmaker.


Life intertwined with death; ending with continuity. Hopinka explores, in the extended conversations with his subjects, these intermediate points where a life transforms into its opposite, growing into it. Moments of community experience adverts of a shared, desired, world vision. Intimacy spaces, at Sweetwater’s home, speak of the inconfessable, of the lives we detach ourselves from in our vital process, with pain, with sadness. 


At the end, the film goes back to shore, to the threshold between bright and dark, between one world and another. We have traversed it held by the hand of someone who knows how to look into the interstices, into the cracks, and finds there tenderness, change, life.



Fernando Chaves Espinach


2020. San José, Costa Rica


Published in November, 2020


Volume 4 , Issue 6



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