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Sky Hopinka: Poet of Indigenous cinema

A conversation with the Portland-educated experimental filmmaker and newly minted MacArthur “Genius Grant” honoree.

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Artist, filmmaker, and 2022 MacArthur Fellow Sky Hopinka. Photo courtesy of John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Since its inception 41 years ago, the MacArthur Fellowship, better known as the “Genius Grant,” has become arguably America’s ultimate validation of creative talent. This year’s roster of 25 new MacArthur Fellows, each of whom will receive an $800,000 stipend from the from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, includes experimental filmmaker Sky Hopinka, who earned his bachelor’s degree at Portland State University and lived in the city from 2006 to 2013.

Born in 1984 and raised in Ferndale, Washington, Hopinka is a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin and a descendant of the Pechanga Band of Luiseño people of southern California. His films have been exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival, the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, and he’s also a film professor at Bard College in upstate New York.

Portland is where Hopinka found his artistic voice, and where his first works, such as 2014’s wawa, were conceived. The Northwest’s watery landscape is where he has most often turned his camera; we see protagonists walking leafy, verdant mountain trails, and making pilgrimages to waterfalls, down rivers, or to the ocean. A pair of local landmarks, Portland’s Tilikum Crossing bridge and Ridgefield, Washington’s Cathlapotle Plankhouse, are the subject of his 2017 short Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary.

Portland is also where Hopinka learned the Chinook Wawa language of the lower Columbia basin, which is spoken throughout his short films as well as in his feature debut, 2021’s małni – towards the ocean, towards the shore. “Part of the desire I had to make films was to tell Indigenous stories that were unique to my own community and my own identity,” he explained in a 2020 Criterion Channel interview.

Screen shot from Sky Hopinka’s 2021 film “Kicking the Clouds.”

Yet instead of making straightforward documentaries or creating fictitious novels or scripted movies, Hopinka found his voice in non-narrative cinema, which by its very definition is about abstraction rather than representational storytelling. That counter-intuitive approach proved key. “What I was really interested in was telling stories that are relevant to what contemporary experience is without that baggage,” he added, “and how to make things a bit more creative or poetic.”

Because Hopinka’s films tend to move continually through landscape, making each view fleeting, accompanying audio recordings in Chinook Wawa tie the kinetic visuals together. This ongoing dialogue, despite the presences of subtitles, also becomes its own kind of musical soundtrack, which makes sense because Hopinka got his creative start playing in and recording rock bands; he’s also the son of a powwow drummer and a dancer.

This latter influence is not purely nostalgic, but a source of yearning as well as influence. When Hopinka was a child, his father was often away on tour. “There came a point in my mid-twenties where I wanted to get to know him,” the filmmaker explained, “and the easiest way to do that was to ask him to sing some songs and record some songs, and it provided an access into talking to one another.” In Hopinka’s 2015 short film Jáaji Approx., for example, his father describes the rhythmic allure of powwow: “You just live for that one certain beat to start with. … Pretty soon songs will start coming to you.” In a way, Hopinka’s films are his songs.

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Since leaving Portland, Hopinka has also led a somewhat itinerant life: that of an adjunct professor, teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukie and at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University before Bard. At each stop he’s been prolific, making in the past eight years about 13 different experimental and documentary shorts and a feature while also showing still images and multi-channel video installations at galleries, and even publishing a book: 2018’s Around the Edge of Encircling Lake.

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Recently I spoke by phone with Hopinka to retrace his artistic steps in Portland and consider where his post-Genius-Grant career might go:

What’s it been like teaching at Bard, which is away from the regions you’ve previously called home or have roots, but where a lot of great experimental filmmakers like Peter Hutton (a personal favorite) have taught?

It’s certainly a storied program, with Peter Hutton, Peggy Ahwesh, Adolfas Mekas all having taught there. It’s hard to navigate at times, but also there’s rewards. I focus on the program that I’m in, and try to find ways to include my research in the curriculum that I’m teaching. That feels like a nice place to be at. Teaching is a job and I need to survive. It’s just trying to find places that help you do that. How can you make work and follow your practice and your creative ideas and dreams at the same time?

How did you wind up attending Portland State?

I was living in Southern California and my family lives in northern Washington, so as I would drive from California to visit them in Washington, I felt drawn to Portland. So in 2006, when I was transferred out of community college in Southern California, I just decided to apply to PSU. I got in and just kind of went from there. It’s a place that I still consider home, like the Northwest in general.

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What was your way into filmmaking?

I started taking photographs when I was like 18, 19. I enrolled for half a semester in a black-and-white photography class. I never got to the point of actually developing or printing the film, but I learned how to use a camera, and that was a big part: just learning about shutter speed, aperture, ISO. Those basics stuck with me. I’d take photographs and just think about composition. I had a point-and-shoot digital camera and I eventually started turning on its very low-definition video function and just started to record videos, trying to demystify the process of filmmaking. I’d been in a class at PSU and when one of the students made a film for the final, I was like, ‘How do you make a film? How did you do that?’ There was a kind of mystery to me, something that I was really fascinated by, in some ways as an extension of my interest in recording music and being in bands and spending time making my own compositions and messing around with Pro-Tools. That helped me understand what non-linear editing was, and how these different practices can be applied together.

Hopinka moved into filmmaking from photography, which he still practices, as in this photo from his 2020 series “Breathings.” Of it, he writes: “O! Being here right now, not thinking of yesterday or the day before. But a long time ago last night aunty mentioned today and the rain falling and streaking against the upstairs window as Stacey and I looked down at the birch waiting to be climbed. This isn’t the outside, and being here then felt more comfortable, in slicks and hoods, in boots and in our youth.” Inkjet print, etching, 17 x 17 inches.

How did learning Chinook Wawa intertwine with your interest in film?

I’d had a longstanding interest in language growing up, but never really knew where to start, or it seemed like a process that felt out of reach. But there was this point where I’d been at PSU for like six years: dropping out, taking classes, dropping out, taking classes. I really wanted to graduate at that point. I had an interest in language revitalization, and I wanted to get my foreign language requirement met in a native language. Around that same time, I met my teacher and he really encouraged me to learn Chinook. The Ho-Chunk language, you know, it’s like two thousand miles away. So learning Chinook was supporting the language community of the land that I was living on, and I was really into that idea. That happened within a few months of when I really started getting serious about trying to learn how to make films.

Your films seem to contemplate our individual and cultural connections with landscape. We see people walking down forested trails, driving down highways and canoeing rivers. Has that been intentional, or do these ideas find their way into your films organically?

There’s a lot of different ways that I think about the land. There’s the sort of a high-minded way of looking at the histories of it: the things that it means, and the potential to mean so many different things. But also on a practical level, it’s just a matter of where I’m at, and if I have a camera, if I’m going to film there. After that, it’s a process of understanding: how does it fit into a conversation that I’m interested in having, whether that’s around myth or story or language or history? That’s often just the first way in: framing an idea as I’m trying to understand what that idea is. I make the films that I do in the way that I do because I’m trying to understand an idea that I don’t quite know how to express or explain. The films then become demarcations of that process, or part of the ways that I am trying to relate to these bigger ideas that I don’t have clear answers for. It’s a thing that I’m trying to work through. Who am I and where am I?

You began in photography, which makes you a natural cinematographer, but creative editing brings your films alive. At what stage in the filmmaking process do you feel the most joy or ease?

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There’s different joys and anxieties in each step. When I’m wanting to start a project, I’m just thinking about getting on the road and holding a camera. Then when I’m shooting, I’m thinking about editing, like how it’s going to look, what’s it’s going to look like: ‘What can I do with this?’ And then when I’m editing, I just want everything to be assembled and get to the color correction and sound-mixing stage. And then when I’m done, I just want to start over again.

Screen shot from Sky Hopinka’s 2014 film “Kunįkaga Remember Red Banks, Kunįkaga Remembers the Welcoming Song.”

You wrote about being interested in a kind of circular form of storytelling. How was it that experimental, non-narrative film felt right for the ideas you wanted to explore?

I don’t have like a treatise on what I think about narrative filmmaking or why nonfiction film is the way I want to go. It really began because I wanted to make films but I was pretty shy about having to deal with people. I was just like, ‘It’s easy for me to make work with my friends and people that I know and trust it and try to figure out what my voice is in that.’ It’s a lot easier to make a documentary because you just go and talk to people and you can hide behind the camera in some ways in different ways than narrative filmmaking, where you’re having to deal with crew and sound and lighting. I wanted to make work like [Béla Tarr and Ágnes Hranitzky’s] Werckmeister Harmonies or the work of arthouse films. But I had no idea how to go about doing that. Saying, ‘I’m going to interview my friends, I’m going to talk to them and learn how to edit,’ it was manageable in ways that alleviated some of the social anxieties that I have had. Going to grad school, I really got introduced to experimental film and this larger tradition. It was just like, ‘Oh, right: I can work through these ideas and go deeper into documentary.’

What about the challenge of taking on feature-length filmmaking? It’s not always a given that a short-story writer will have the same aptitude or passion for writing a novel. Watching maɬni – towards the ocean, towards the shore, I saw a meaningful extension of your cinematic voice, yet unmistakably still that voice.

I got into filmmaking with the idea that I wanted to make feature-length films, before I knew what an experimental film was. After then spending a number of years on primarily experimental shorts, I still was thinking, ‘What will it feel like to make a feature-length film?’ With maɬni, I didn’t want to try to have to learn a whole new way of making films or working with the crew or trying to get like a half-million-dollar budget. I thought, ‘I have my camera that I use for my shorts and my microphone, and I have my approach.’  I really started making short films the way that I’ve made them because I didn’t want to have to ask for permission. I didn’t want to have to look for funding to make them, for approval to make them. It’s just, ‘I have an idea. I’m really bad at explaining what this is. I’m really bad at pitching an experimental documentary around the meditations of, you know, of landscape and reincarnation, you know? And I don’t want it to change this idea. I just want to see it realized.’ I actually got turned down for a number of grants for this film. It’s easier to have a film concept for me than a pitch deck. I love short films and I’ll always make short films, but I’m trying features for the same reason I picked up a Bolex: because I just wanted to see what it felt like. It’s just trying to find new ways to understand the filmmaking process—my process—and different ways of telling stories.

From Hopinka’s 2021 photo series “Flesh and Ghost.” “I’m tired of being temporary, I’m tired of an eventually, I heard you singing last night on the bank up the mountain on the cliff facing west. The oldest of us is in the east and they’re tired too.” Inkjet with hand scratched text and uv laminate, framed, 60 x 30 inches.

You have two feature films in the works. Will you remain a veritable one-man band or bring on more collaborators?

With these films coming up, it’s like, ‘Okay, now I feel like I have this under my belt,’ so I’m getting to work with a producer. I’m going to try and get a budget and maybe a little bit of a bigger crew and see what that’s like. But it’s doing things incrementally, in ways that I feel comfortable with my own skill sets and not too much at sea with an approach to filmmaking that is not natural to me: where I still have control of the project, it can be collaborative in a way that is meaningful to me, and not entirely market-driven.

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Given that you’re now exploring making films with more collaborators and funding, are you revisiting the idea of trying a narrative work?

It’s always been bouncing around in the back of my head: how can I make a narrative film? What would that look like? Do I want to make a rom com or an action movie? No, I want to make something like [Thai filmmaker] Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and trying to figure out, what the path is in to that. I was never happy with the scripts or the treatments that I wrote. It’s easier just to shoot things and edit them together. But as I have gained more confidence in my writing, you know, it’s allowed me to revisit these ideas of making work that is narrative or fiction-based. That’s where I’m at right now, getting confidence about the ways that I tell a story and understanding the ways that I make films and seeing how that can be applied to these types of film that I still have an interest in trying to figure out how to make.

How might the MacArthur Fellowship enable you?

I’m definitely still figuring that out. It’s like a month out from the announcement, but it still feels a bit surreal, you know? I’ve talked to Bard about teaching and maybe taking some time off. The academic calendar is a grind, you know? I’m looking forward to having some mental space to not have to think about paying off my student debt, paying bills, constantly being afraid of saying no to something because you don’t know when it’s going to stop. Those small things really chipped away at you in terms of the stresses that you carry. I’m going to pay off the debt that I’ve been carrying since I first started community college, for like 20 years, all my adult life. But I have no idea what that’s going to be like because I just haven’t really experienced that. I’m hoping it gives me some space to breathe a bit and take a step back and think about what are the things that I want to do with my life, what are the films that I want to make? And what else? What other forms could I explore and try to make work in?

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Brian Libby is a Portland-based freelance journalist and critic writing about architecture and design, visual art and film. He has contributed to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest, The Atlantic, Dwell, CityLab and The Oregonian, among others. Brian’s Portland Architecture blog has explored the city’s architecture and city planning since 2005. He is also the author of “Tales From the Oregon Ducks Sideline,” a history of his lifelong favorite football team. A graduate of New York University, Brian is additionally an award-winning filmmaker and photographer whose work has been exhibited at the American Institute of Architects, the Portland Art Museum’s Northwest Film Center, and venues throughout the US and Europe. For more information, visit www.brianlibby.com.

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