Sweetwater Sahme contemplates the Pacific Ocean in Sky Hopinka's experimental documentary "malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore." (Courtesy Grasshopper Films)
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Water flows and circles through the experimental documentary “malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore.”

Filmmaker Sky Hopinka immerses us in long, reverent images of water moving through the lush Pacific Northwest: streaming in fine trickles over green mosses and ferns; carrying long canoes down the Columbia River; rushing and releasing in the silver-gray sea. The ocean is “where people go when they die,” the narrator says early in the film. “Where the spirit world is.” 

And along these paths of water, “malni” interweaves the paths of two Chinook people who live close to it, as they meditate on the cycles of birth, death, and rebirth that water engenders and embodies.

Streaming now as part of the SPACE x Apohadion series, “malni” invites us into a slow, spacious, luminous storytelling, a film that’s at once inquiry, praise, and ritual. 

The two characters’ journeys in “malni” (a Chinook word, pronounced moth-nee) are separate, but intertwined by culture, landscape, and the fact that each is expecting a child.

Jordan Mercier walks through the woods of the Pacific Northwest in Sky Hopinka’s experimental documentary “malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore.” (Courtesy Grasshopper Films)

We follow Jordan Mercier as he hikes through forests, paddles a canoe, and drums and sings in community. We meet Sweetwater Sahme, a young woman in her third trimester, at a waterfall, where she performs a cleansing ritual for her baby and hopes, she says, beaming, to find her way behind the waterfall.

As the film cuts between Jordan and Sweetwater, landscapes of the preternaturally beautiful Pacific Northwest, and the drumming of the area’s Indigenous people, we hear talk of deceased grandmothers and childhood, an ancient myth about the origin of death, and the significance of language, long hair, and the spirit realm. 

Filmmaker Hopinka, who directed, shot, edited, and worked sound for the film, grew up in Washington State and is himself Indigenous (of the Ho-Chunk Nation/Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians). “Malni,” his first feature film, builds on short films and installations in which Hopinka has focused, as his bio puts it, on “personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape.” And “malni,” too, presents an Indigenous culture from an Indigenous perspective. Rather than explain, translate, or display Indigenous culture for a non-Native audience, it explores on its own terms and from within.

Much of the film is spoken in Chinuk Wawa, an Indigenous language of the Lower Columbia Basin, which Hopinka has studied and taught. Jordan and the narrator (voiced by Hopinka) speak it consistently, with English subtitles; and as Sweetwater speaks in English, her words are subtitled in Chinuk Wawa. The effect is both immersive and humbling, a reminder of the richness of a millennia-old culture that remains a living one.

As the narrator and off-camera interlocutor, Hopinka conjures a sense of both the mythic and the intimate. “Where are we going now? Maybe we’re going to the ocean,” are the first words we hear in the film, as if spoken by an ur-storyteller.

It’s a tone we hear again a little later as we’re introduced to Sweetwater: “This woman, she’s going to the river. I’ll follow her.” Then the narration turns personal: “We’ve been friends for a long time. I met her as soon as I moved to Portland.” As the sense of the timeless co-exists with the immediate, storytelling itself seems an act happening at once across time and right now.  

Indeed, with its gentle pace and sense of story as a slow-shifting, cyclical gathering, “malni” has a very different narrative shape than those of the Eurocentric Western canon. As the film progresses toward the births of the characters’ children, we flow along and between long stretches of conversation and landscape, then find ourselves back on a trail or at a waterfall where we’ve been before.

These formal qualities, as well as the characters’ reflections – that we don’t know what life holds for us, that we can only see where we’ve been, that spirit can be conveyed between the dead and the born through song, language, and ritual – suggest a sense of continuity and open-endedness about the future, a fluidity rather than a hard-stop narrative resolution. 

And the film’s visual and sonic language follows suit. In addition to gorgeous landscape shots – an amber blade of sunlight slipping through a gap in a cliff, a vast retreating sea bathed in dawn’s periwinkle and rose – much of the camera work is hand-held and often experimental in focus and frame-rate. 

Dancers on a football field at night move in time-lapse, like colorful, energetic blurs of forward momentum merging into an indefinite future. In the woods, the camera pans in fuzzy focus over a streambed’s soft green, ruddy, and white shapes, as if inviting us to release our hold on visual definition and boundaries, and sharpening our ears to the sounds of water roaring, dripping, and burbling. And as Jordan cradles a hot coal into a shell and speaks, for a moment we hear not his voice but distant voices of children and an older man, then the sound, once again, of water’s rush.

Just as water runs through the many shapes and vessels of landscape, “malni” seems to suggest so does an ever-shifting essence of a story run through tellers and language itself.  

Sweetwater does eventually make her way behind the waterfall. And the view through that curtain of rushing water is simple but revelatory, as is “malni” itself. Hopinka conjures a quietly profound reorientation to the flow of water and story—and to the life carried by both.

Megan Grumbling is a writer, editor, and teacher who lives in Portland. Find her at megangrumbling.com.

“Malni – towards the ocean, towards the shore,” a film by Sky Hopinka. In Chinuk Wawa and English. Streaming as part of the SPACE x Apohadion series at https://bit.ly/3aaTuBg.

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• “Albert (A Musical),” a new short musical by local librettist Mark Evan Chimsky, tells the story of Civil War soldier Albert Cashier, who was born Jennie Hodgers. Albert will stream April 27 at noon as a selection of the Boston Theater Marathon XXIII: Special Zoom Edition. The BTM is a free event that features 10-minute plays by New England playwrights in collaboration with New England theaters. Visit BostonPlaywrights.org

• Looking to up your poetry recitation game? Poet and teacher Martin Steingesser is offering a workshop in performing poetry, through the Farnsworth Museum. It runs Wednesdays on April 21, May 5, May 19, and June 2, at 5 p.m. To register, go to https://bit.ly/3wFVGdV.

— Megan Grumbling

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