Art Talk with Filmmaker Sky Hopinka

By Rebecca Sutton
Cursive text over psychadelic colors

A still from Sky Hopinka's film Fainting Spells. Image courtesy of Sky Hopinka

Sky Hopinka (Ho-Chunk/Pechanga) first began seriously making films when he was living in Portland, Oregon, and learning Chinuk Wawa, a language native to the Columbia River Basin. So perhaps it is inevitable that he sees similarities between language and film—the structural requirements inherent to both, and the possibilities that arise when you explode these requirements and set about creating your own definitions and meanings.

Experimental and fragmentary, Hopinka’s films piece together video footage, audio recordings, and archival material to investigate concepts of language, landscape, and identity, as well as the mythology and traditions of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Visual manipulations and overlays enhance his work’s dreamlike, sometimes hallucinatory effect, creating space for an audience’s own curiosity and wonder. A professor of film, video, and animation at Simon Fraser University, his work has been shown at the Sundance Film Festival, the Whitney Biennial, ImagineNATIVE Media + Arts Festival, and the Ann Arbor Film Festival, among others. He is currently a Fellow at Harvard’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, where he is working on his first feature-length film. We recently spoke with Hopinka about his creative process, the balance between honoring history and pursuing innovation, and the attraction of an evocative landscape.

NEA: What were your early experiences with the arts? Did you grow up in an artistic household?

SKY HOPINKA: I grew up in a household where my grandmother was a beadwork artist. My mom was a dancer and my dad was a singer. So that was part of our life. I never really thought too much about fine arts or things like that probably until my twenties. But as far as creativity, my grandmother, my brother, my mom, my dad were all creative in their own lives.

NEA: You began seriously pursuing film when you were learning Chinuk Wawa. Can you talk about the relationship between language and your art, and how learning Chinuk Wawa led you to video?

HOPINKA: I'm still working through how connected they are to me. As I learned this language, I think that helped give me a foundation or a structure on how I approach my video work. I wasn't able to look at it critically until years later, but the structure of grammar, the structure of language, all these different rules or approaches to learning language—I could see myself applying those same things to how I approach video. And just trying to figure out what it was I was interested in and how they're very similar in these ways that aren't immediately obvious.

NEA: Language still seems to play a major role in your work.

HOPINKA: Absolutely. Whether it is looking at grammar, translation, or subtitles, or even how I use different sources for the ideas that I'm working through in my relationship to the history that I am a part of, or one that I don't have immediate access to. It’s a thing that I’m constantly thinking about. Language has always been a foundation for approaching video and storytelling and it continues to be so and in different ways.

NEA: You work a lot with indigenous history and myths and traditional beliefs. Is there a balance you feel you have to strike in terms of honoring this history and tradition while also creating something new?

HOPINKA: The thing that guides what I do and how I do it is trying to be respectful of this history. I try to be very respectful of mores or rules, because for a long time that hasn't been the case from the larger world we live in. There are stories that we tell at certain times of the year, and even though those stories are published in books by anthropologists or whoever, and they’re available to anyone that wants to read them, it doesn't mean that I have to do that. I’m not going to participate in that; I'm not going to tell this story or that story if it's not respectful to the traditions of the community that hold them. Even with the most recent film that I've done, which is directly about a myth, I'm not trying to enter this into the Encyclopedia of Ho-Chunk Mythology. Rather, [my film] is something that's more poetic and something that's more subjective. I try to do it in such a way that it can't be taken as a myth that I'm trying to teach you. It's more about the purpose of the story rather than trying to make it an official document in the archive of story, of myth, or what my tribe believes in. So I'm interested in the utility of the stories without getting into the objectification of them.

NEA: How do you think modern video techniques can create new meanings and interpretations for this ancient body of story and history that informs your work?

HOPINKA: I think everyone [in film] is trying to figure that out, whether they're Native or white or from wherever. A lot of stories that are in popular culture are old stories. While we have foundational understandings of how to relate to myth, it's still something that is in constant conversation. How do we negotiate these technologies and how do we make them a part of our daily lives in a way that is meaningful to the past, but at the same time relevant for the future? It's a challenge, especially with indigenous stories or any sort of people that have been affected by colonization. Their culture and our culture and their history and our history have been romanticized or treated as lost—[as if] it’s gone and it's been gone for hundreds of years and it's not what it was. But that's an outsider imposition as to what these cultures are and how they exist.

So how am I going to participate in relating these stories and making space for them using these different technologies, while at the same time, not trying to hold them as these ideals of what was lost? That’s where the negotiation comes in. That's where the utility comes in and questioning what is the utility of myth? What's the utility of story? How can I use video to continue that? And also, what can I teach you? What can I teach you not only about moral values or the mores of the culture, but what are some phrases? What is the storytelling structure and how does it exist in cycles? How does that vary from tribe to tribe and how can video be a medium or conduit for that? There's no easy answer, but that's part of what I'm trying to do—[have] these different conversations of what cinema can look like using this technology while still engaging in these stories and these histories.

As far as making work that is widely available outside of the audience it was intended for, having those clues, having things that are hinted at or gestured to rather than explicitly said is also a way to try and keep these things private in a sense, and help bolster the agency of any given community. It counters the entitlement of knowledge that comes with Western modes of studying the world, especially with epistemological and ethnographic stuff—that if it exists, we have a right to know about it as scientists, as scholars, as academics, as people studying otherness. How can I not participate in that, and not try and sell my culture out? I can still reference those sorts of things, but not explicitly say what they are. You don't have to explain what every little thing means or what every little signifier is. I'm not interested in that.

NEA: You mentioned having an intended audience. Who is the intended audience and what do you hope the impact of your work is on them?

HOPINKA: It changes for every video, I suppose. I don't feel the burden to try and make things accessible to the widest audience that I can, because the widest audience is code for white American. But what does it mean to make work for a Native audience that's dealing with things that may not be what is ascribed to what we're allowed to deal with? So my audience is a Native audience, my audience is an indigenous audience, my audience is one that understands things about certain belief systems or certain cultural values or certain communities that may have been oppressed, that may still be trying to figure out what their trajectory holds for them. It’s anyone who's okay without having things explained to them overtly or who is into the languages that I'm trying to convey through propositions and conversations.

NEA: You mentioned that many people either romanticize Native art, or simply think it doesn’t exist anymore. Are those stereotypes that you still encounter?

HOPINKA: I definitely encounter that. The act of [my videos] existing is a form of resistance against those sorts of critiques. I've never been told that I'd need to make videos around certain subjects or I won't have a job, but I have been told if I want to make it then I need to make work about A, B, and C. I know that the expectation has been that there are certain things that appeal to a wider audience, that gets funding or that gets support. I make the videos that I make because it’s what I want to make; it's a part of the conversation that I want to have with either these histories or this exploration of what it means to exist in the right here, right now, as opposed to participating in a romanticization or tokenization of my culture or my past and my family's past and my tribe's past.

NEA: Another major theme in your work is the concept of physical space. What draws you to certain landscapes and what sort of meaning do they hold for you?

HOPINKA: That's always on my mind. Growing up in Northern Washington along the coast and then in Southern California in the desert gave me a strong appreciation for landscape, as well as how different Native people have lived in these different places. So that's been a point of wonderment for me from a very young age. Partly it comes from being drawn to compositional qualities of the landscape, whether it's the light or whatever it is, and then also just thinking about the history of what these landscapes hold—how they're places of violence, contemplation, beauty, whatever. A place is full of possibility, especially when the light is right and it's a nice time of day and there is something beautiful about it or just something evocative.

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

HOPINKA: If I know that I want to make something and I'm on a trip, I'll have my camera with me. When I'm driving around, I'll be looking for something that I want to shoot, whether that's a powwow, whether it's a lighthouse, or just from just walking, I'll gather whatever I think is interesting. I try to be deliberate with how much video I shoot. I'm not the kind of person that shoots just because I have space on my memory card.

When I start putting things on an editing timeline, [I’m] going through them and pulling up the clips that I like or the things that I think are interesting. I'm just kind of assembling them in a certain order and seeing how certain clips react to one another or speak to one another. Sitting down watching cuts all the way through beginning to end in a dark room, preferably next to someone, is always really helpful. When I start to cringe, I know that I need to change something.

So I show different edits to different people and I get different feedback from them. Getting their honest opinion can help me realize what I'm trying to do. It's always challenging in critiques when you don't know if the feedback they're giving is part of what they want to make, or they're trying to help you realize what you want to make. So having that be part of this editing process is really important to me.

Usually a video goes through 20 [rounds of] edits. It's always satisfying to see the very first cut versus the very last cut and see how much it's changed. There's a lot of tinkering that I do with the sounds, with the image, with color.

Another part of the process is that I think a lot. I'm thinking a lot about what does this mean? Can I do this? If I use this video or this image, then what would the repercussions be in this context? So I do a lot of thinking, and it kind of drives me crazy sometimes, but I also think it is a necessary part of trying to survey what these different landscapes are of what I want to do—both figurative and literal landscapes—and trying to figure out what the best approach is.

NEA: Obviously you use a lot of compilation of audio and visual pieces. How do you know when they’re all working together within the overall puzzle of the piece?

HOPINKA: If it makes sense to me, then that's good enough. Each video has some system or some logic. If I can develop that logic over the course of it and it allows someone to enter into the realm of what this video is, then I feel like I'm on the right track. I try to teach the audience how to watch this video in the first two or three minutes. If I can introduce all these different elements and give an audience an idea of what to expect, then that frees me up in some ways to try other things further on in the video. If they feel like they're following this pattern or logic of how these clips relate to one another, whether or not it's explicit, then I feel like that's okay. I mentioned earlier I'm not trying to teach anyone anything around Ho-Chunk belief or indigenous belief. It's more part of how do these things make sense within the parameters of this video? How can I reinforce that, or how can I teach you how to watch it? With other things, like some of these visual manipulations or overlays, it's usually when I feel excited by it but also nervous, that [I know] I'm on the right track. That's usually a good balance for me to just try something.