Maɬni review – a reflective, personal documentary about language and mortality

The debut feature from Sky Hopinka is quite unlike any documentary you are likely to see. Maɬni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore is at times meditative and reflective; at other times visceral and bursting with energy. Hopinka is, among other things, the director, editor and narrator, as he personally guides you through this story of death, nature and belonging.

courtesy of Berwick Festival

Maɬni follows two personal friends of the director – Sweetwater Sahme and Jordan Mercier (although the pair, very deliberately, never meet). Throughout a brisk 80 minutes, the pair recount their subjective experiences that have shaped them throughout their lives. The whole film is framed around the Chinookian origin of death myth (Imał), and the dialogue is either in English or native Chinuk Wawa. Refreshingly, both have subtitles translating one into the other. 

Maɬni builds heavily on work that Hopinka has showcased at the Berwick FIlm & Media Arts Festival in recent years. It is less abstract and experimental, but retains a style that makes the most out of relatively simple camera tricks. There is a literalness to the film that makes the accounts of both Sahme and Mercier both moving and genuine. Immense patience and detail is afforded to their stories, and to the deeply personal accounts of how they have come to be the people they are. As a result, you really sink into Hopinka’s narration and style. His way of placing himself directly into the lived environment of his subjects is unique and experimental, not to mention endlessly watchable.

courtesy of Berwick festival

Language plays a central role in Hopinka’s film, linguistic and aesthetic beauty working in tandem to capture some of the film’s most absorbing moments. Words and stories play a central role in how Sahme and Mercier view their lives, deaths and afterlives, and as they talk Hopinka through their thoughts you cannot help but feel there is a point to be made about our relationship to nature and how we define ourselves physically, collectively and cosmologically. With very little substantive action on screen, Hopinka crafts a detailed and layered story that you will still be thinking about long after you finish watching it. 

Life’s cyclical nature and the way in which we flow through it are ever present in Hopinka’s film, the point almost hammered home by the ever-present motif of water. The exact nature of what makes us the persons that we are is something that obviously fascinates him. Maɬni is a low-key but intelligent reflection on human experience and condition, with a heavy presence of mortality that feels so essential to the message. Hopinka’s highly individual, beautiful style is worth savouring as he guides you through this introspective journey of identity, language and life. It will move you in ways you may not even consider possible.

Maɬni – Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore is available to watch here as part of BFMAF until October 11th.

James Hanton

James is a contributor to Outtake, Starburst Magazine and The Wee Review. He is also the former Editor-in-Chief of The Student, the oldest student newspaper in the UK. A recent graduate from the University of Edinburgh, James is looking for paid writing gigs so he doesn't fall into the endless abyss of graduate unemployment. He can be contacted at: jhantonwriter@gmail.com