An Evening with Sky Hopinka

Screening on Film

The searching, striking digital films of Sky Hopinka (b. 1984) are complex formal arrangements, conceptually and aesthetically dense, characterized by an intricate layering of word and image. But they are also wellsprings of beauty and mystery, filled with surprising confluences of speech and song, color and motion. A member of the Ho-Chunk Nation of Wisconsin, Hopinka has described his work as “ethnopoetic,” a term that encompasses several imperatives—among them, the mission to reclaim the ethnographic gaze that has dominated the representation of indigenous cultures and to bring the indirection of poetry to an exploration of Native identity both past and present.

Hopinka, who is fluent in Chinuk Wawa, has been an active participant in its revival in the Pacific Northwest, and language occupies a central role in his films. Many of them deal with the challenges of language preservation and transmission and, more broadly, with language as a container of culture. 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.

The seven-minute Jáaji Approx., Hopinka’s most widely screened work to date (it appeared, for instance, in last year’s Sundance and Ann Arbor film festivals), remains the most concise, and perhaps most vivid, example of the filmmaker’s contrapuntal method. Jáaji is the direct-address word for “father” in the Hocąk language; the second part of the title alludes not only to the approximations of translation but also to the notions of proximity and distance that shape the video’s form and content. A road movie through archetypal landscapes of the American West, it combines fragmentary shots of open skies, coastlines, forests, mountains, deserts, and highways with Hopinka’s audio recordings of his father’s stories and songs from the powwow circuit. The elder’s words, sometimes indistinct, initially appear on-screen as phonetic transcriptions. Midway through, Hopinka cuts in to accompany his father on a song, and as the gap between speaker and listener narrows, the editing slows and the mood shifts, the images becoming more intensely colored. Manipulating simple elements to emotionally complex ends, Jáaji Approx. creates an effect of space and time being at once traversed and collapsed, of a relationship and a shared history coming into focus. – Dennis Lim, adapted from his 2017 Artforum article

The Harvard Film Archive is pleased to welcome Sky Hopinka, a 2018-19 Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow for a program which includes new films as well as readings by Hopinka to accompany select pieces.

Introduction and discussion with HFA Director Haden Guest and Sky Hopinka.


  • Dislocation Blues

    Directed by Sky Hopinka.
    US, 2017, digital video, color, 17 min.
    Copy source: Sky Hopinka

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.

  • Fainting Spells

    Directed by Sky Hopinka.
    US, 2018, digital video, color, 11 min.
    Copy source: Sky Hopinka

Told through recollections of youth, learning, lore and departure, this is an imagined myth for the Xąwįska, or the Indian Pipe Plant—used by the Ho-Chunk to revive those who have fainted.

  • Jáaji Approx.

    Directed by Sky Hopinka.
    USA, 2015, digital video, color, 8 min.
    Copy source: Sky Hopinka

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 Hocak language.

  • When You’re Lost in the Rain

    Directed by Sky Hopinka.
    US, 2018, digital video, color, 5 min.
    Copy source: Sky Hopinka

In this video drawing from Bob Dylan's song "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues," layers of experiences circling loss and longing are overlaid between images of landscapes and movement. In the song, a stranger's listlessness and exhaustion are woven through and around Juarez, Mexico, and so, too, are these stories woven around original discontent and uncertainty as they move through an uneasy negotiation with the strangeness of the American pioneer spirit.

  • Cloudless Blue Egress of Summer, Part 2

    Directed by Sky Hopinka.
    US, 2018, digital video, color, 13 min.
    Copy source: Sky Hopinka

Fort Marion, also known as Castillo de San Marcos, has a long and complex history.  Built in 1672 and located in St. Augustine, Florida, it served as a prison during the Seminole Wars in the 1830's, and a prison at the end of the Indian Wars in the late 1880's. It was where Captain Richard Pratt developed a plan of forced assimilation through education that spread across the United States to boarding schools, built with the philosophy "that all the Indian there is in the race should be dead. Kill the Indian in him, and save the man."

Each section of the video tells a small part of this history, from Seminole Chieftain Coacoochee's account of his escape from the fort, to ledger drawings made by the prisoners from the plains given pen and paper and told to draw what they see and what they remember.  Each section traces the persistence of presence and memory experienced through confinement and incarceration, through small samplings of space and hope. Where the ocean is a beginning of a story that is incomplete, whose end is lingering on a surface that is innately unstable and effortlessly resolute.

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