No one authority: the films of Sky Hopinka

By Shotgun CinemaPublished on 05/11/2018

“No one person is the authority on anything,” says Cleo Keahna in Sky Hopinka’s 2017 film Dislocation Blues. Keahna is talking about already-fading memories of being at Standing Rock, which is the nominal subject of the film. But the declaration can just as easily apply to Hopinka’s filmmaking, which focuses on indigenous communities around North America. He asks profound questions about richly complex spaces, but refuses to explain them. The viewer is forced to think for herself, as the films confront the limitations of language, communication, and even cinema itself.


Perhaps the first confrontation is through language, which often uses the imperfection of translation to illustrate the limits of communication. In Jáaji Approximately (2016), speech and subtitles in the Hočąk language seek to build a private filial code with Hopinka’s father. In Visions of an Island, an Unangam Tunuu elder describes the coastline, explaining that instead of saying there are thousands of something, he says the area is full. Off-camera speech is negated, but subtitles remain, calling into question the “objective” reality of what the viewer is actually seeing. The only actual reality is the subjective experience of the viewer.


Hopinka in this sense is a poetic filmmaker, collecting images that seem to communicate something precise while excluding easy interpretations. Working mostly with digital cinematography, he uses an exceptional variety of effects to keep the viewer unsettled. A landscape will be suddenly doubled, creating an off-kilter mirage; a scene suddenly appears upside-down; the image itself suddenly exists in a completely different environment.

And just as often the viewer is startled by Hopinka’s images of vibrantly rust-colored lichen, a magnificent sunset, or a rearview mirror reflecting an upside-down American flag. Curiously, they bring attention to distances: between between indigenous and non-indigenous cultures, between the filmmaker’s intention and what is received, and even lurking in the performance of one’s own identity. In Dislocation Blues, Cleo Keahna’s idealized recollections of Standing Rock bring attention to how one does not feel that sense of connection in everyday life. One cannot escape one’s body in everyday life, and one cannot adequately communicate the ecstasy of that experience. Such limitations abound in Hopinka’s films, which are suspended in a state of contemplation. 


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