Artists' Television Access

Without Paths or Boundaries: Films of Sky Hopinka

Thursday, May 10, 2018, 7:30 pm, 10 General/$5 Cinematheque Members

Sky Hopinka In Person

SF Cinematheque  in association with the Communication and Media Studies Department at Sonoma State University and the UC Berkeley Ethnic Studies Department present:

Sky Hopinka’s film work scrutinizes the layered structure of identity in relation to homeland, landscape and language. Like puzzles, his films are constructed with fragmented and superimposed images. Watching them is like experiencing memories inside of a dream, their fragments recomposed without any particular order by the unconscious. This does not make the result less truthful; quite the opposite, it is more real than ever. (Almudena Escobar López: Afterimage)

Indigenous American filmmaker Sky Hopinka’s (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) video work centers around personal positions of homeland and landscape, the precarity of indigenous languages and the concomitant reality of language as a container of culture. While depicting lives and locations from the Bering Sea to Standing Rock, Hopinka’s vision of the North American landscape and its people is borderless and tentative, and inclusive of individual account and collective memory as grounding forces central to cultural survival and resistance. Avoiding a documentary approach to filmmaking in favor of a more nuanced and obliquely angled approach to cinematic ethnopoetics, Hopinka’s lushly visual films often allude to persons and places not present and hint at stories and histories untold and perhaps not completely knowable as disparate voices—familial, poetic, ancestral and contemporary—speak across time and distance.

Screening to include:

Visions of an Island (2016) by Sky Hopinka; digital video, color, sound, from the maker

An Unangam Tunuu elder describes cliffs and summits, drifting birds, and deserted shores.  A group of students and teachers play and invent games revitalizing their language.  A visitor wanders in a quixotic chronicling of earthly and supernal terrain.  These visions offer glimpses of an island in the center of the Bering Sea.

wawa – 2014, Total run time: 06:00, Video, Color, Stereo

Featuring speakers of chinuk wawa, an Indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest, wawa begins slowly, patterning various forms of documentary and ethnography. Quickly, the patterns tangle and become confused and commingled, while translating and transmuting ideas of cultural identity, language, and history.

Jáaji Approximately – 2015, Total run time: 07:36, Video, Color, Stereo

Logging and approximating a relationship between audio recordings of my father and videos gathered of the landscapes we have both separately traversed. The initial distance between the logger and the recordings, of recollections and of songs, new and traditional, narrows while the images become an expanding semblance of filial affect. Jáaji is a near translation for directly addressing a father in the Hočąk language.

Venite et Loquamur – 2015, Total run time: 12:00,Video, B & W, Stereo

A group of students and teachers gather in an historical mansion in the woods of West Virginia for a week-long retreat in spoken Latin.  I observe and I participate, navigating the errata with my camera.

Anti-Objects, or Space Without Path or Boundary – 2017, Total Run Time: 13:05, Video, Color, Stereo

“The individual is not an autonomous, solitary object but a thing of uncertain extent, with ambiguous boundaries. So too is matter, which loses much of its allure the moment it is reduced to an object, shorn of its viscosity, pressure and density. Both subject and matter resist their reduction into objects. Everything is interconnected and intertwined.” —– Kengo Kuma

The title of this video, taken from the texts of the architect Kengo Kuma, suggests a way of looking at everything as “interconnected and intertwined”, as are the historical and the present, the tool and the artifact. Images and representations of two structures in the Portland Metropolitan Area that have direct and complicated connections to the Chinookan people who inhabit(ed) the land are woven with audio tapes of one of the last speakers of the Chinookan creole, chinuk wawa. These localities of matter resist their reduction into objects, and call anew for space and time given to wandering as a deliberate act and the empowerment of shared utility.


I’ll Remember You as You Were, Not as What You’ll Become – 2016, Total run time: 12:32, Video, Color, Stereo

An elegy to Diane Burns on the shapes of mortality and being, and the forms the transcendent spirit takes while descending upon landscapes of life and death. A place for new mythologies to syncopate with deterritorialized movement and song, reifying old routes of reincarnation. Where resignation gives hope for another opportunity, another form, for a return to the vicissitudes of the living and all their refractions.


“I’m from Oklahoma I ain’t got no one to call my own. 

If you will be my honey, I will be your sugar pie way hi ya 

way ya hi ya way ya hi yo”

-Diane Burns (1957-2006)


Dislocation Blues2017, Total run time: 16:57, Video, Color, Stereo

An incomplete and imperfect portrait of reflections from Standing Rock. Cleo Keahna recounts his experiences entering, being at, and leaving the camp and the difficulties and the reluctance in looking back with a clear and critical eye. Terry Running Wild describes what his camp is like, and what he hopes it will become.


notions of past and present

lushly visual filmmaking

Which permits the


one of memory,  

Languages teetering at the brink of extinction

and often explo

Sky Hopinka’s films engender this sense: landscapes, words, memories, all feel like jetsam adrift. They are lyrical and elusive studies of place, identity, and language.





Suggestions of borderlessness


In Hopinka’s videos, words are heard and seen, learned and read, translated and transcribed, their meanings by turns communicated and withheld. The emphasis on language—specifically, the act of language learning, with its inherent lacunae of understanding, its movement from confusion to clarity—is often mirrored in the formal operations of his films.

“Identity in relation to homeland, landscape and language” (pdf)

open spaces

Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) was born and raised in Ferndale, Washington and spent a number of years in Palm Springs and Riverside, California, and Portland, Oregon and is currently based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  In Portland he studied and taught chinuk wawa, a language indigenous to the Lower Columbia River Basin. His video work centers around personal positions of Indigneous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture, and the play between the known and the unknowable.  He received his BA from Portland State University in Liberal Arts and his MFA in Film, Video, Animation, and New Genres from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Dislocation Blues takes as a point of departure the political manifestations of “stand with Standing Rock”, a relatively recent movement, opposed to the construction of a pipeline running through an Indian reservation. Hopinka contrasts the beauty of the Dakota landscape with testimonies of different people which are part of those camps, people who reflect in a very personal way about the concepts of identity and community.

Arguably Hopinka’s most straightforward film to date, Dislocation Blues is much more than meets the eye. A short, dense document of the actions of the Water Protectors at Standing Rock, North Dakota, it is also an inquiry into the way that participation in mass resistance changes a person, and how that affective shift carries through into life after the protests are over. Dislocation Blues is organized around interviews with two Standing Rock protesters. Cleo Keahna is a young person who identifies as “two-spirit,” and describes how finding their place in the movement coincided with making peace with their gender identity. Terry Running Wild is an older protester who talks about the camaraderie in the camp, and how even though on the outside he had reasons to distrust white folks, in the camp “everyone’s an Indian.”

Both interviewees describe their experiences retrospectively, noting the disconnect between what they felt during the Standing Rock protest and how they feel now. Keahna is particularly articulate in explaining how the actual experience had ups and downs, but the bad parts fade in recollection. As per the title, what does it mean for a Native person to exist not only in a space of collective action, but one defined by Native values, only to have that space cease to be? Hopinka shows the activity around Standing Rock but he also abstracts it somewhat, employing his color-saturation method in particular. In this way, he makes it clear that Dislocation Blues is not a documentary “about” Standing Rock, but rather the subjective space it generated, and the way that space is conjured in memory. Put another way, Dislocation Blues seems to ask how one negotiates the mundane after fighting for something sacred. Michael Sicinski.

Hopinka has gained attention in avant-garde circles in recent years not only because of his unique cultural and historical perspective, but because each of his films is a forceful, painterly object. They combine a vernacular treatment of landscape with a sort of interior illumination, an approach that makes even a night shot headed down the road seem physically palpable, replete with possibility. Michael Sicinski

Hopinka, who intends to speak to indigenous audiences from an indigenous perspective through his work, said his goal is decidedly “not trying to explain what culture is to an outside audience; not trying to reduce it to easy explanations,” he said.



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