At the midpoint of Sky Hopinka’s meditative feature debut—which follows the lives of Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier, two Pacific Northwest natives whose Chinook heritage shapes their worldview and respective identities—Sweetwater turns her gaze toward a stunning waterfall tucked away in the Columbia River Basin and reflects, “One of the things that I like about being out here is that you don’t have to say much. It’s a feeling . . . and there’s so much to look at.” This statement could very well be directed at maɬni—towards the ocean, towards the shore itself. Through its patient and sensitive mode of observation, Hopinka’s film encourages a similar type of reverence for, and engagement with, nature—one that recognizes the mythical dimension of the natural world and draws broader, more abstract connections between the American landscape, Indigenous communities, and traditional beliefs about death and rebirth.
Maɬni (pronounced: moth-nee) exists in the space between the material world and the spiritual world. The film revolves around the Chinookan origin-of-death myth in which two people must decide if someone’s spirit is allowed to return to the physical world after they die. Like most myths, this one is supposed to produce valuable lessons and insights critical to our contemporary existence. For Hopinka, a Ho-Chunk artist and filmmaker, the distinction between mythology and reality isn’t a simple one. The film reinforces their interdependence and coexistence. For example, Hopinka patiently guides viewers through the parallel journeys of Sweetwater, an expectant mother, and Jordan, a young father, by oscillating between visually striking documentary footage of the two wandering separately in the natural environment, and intimate, personal conversations with the filmmaker about family, addiction, and the strength of Indigenous culture. In these moments, the ordinary takes on a sacred, uncanny dimension.