Sky Hopinka is a filmmaker based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His video work centers around personal positions of Indigenous homeland and landscape, designs of language as containers of culture, and the play between the known and the unknowable. Currently a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and a Sundance Art of Nonfiction Fellow, he was recently selected as one of three guest curators for the 2019 Whitney Biennial’s film program. In 2018, he wrote “The Centers of Somewhere,” a commissioned essay for the Walker’s ongoing Artist Op-Eds series. His film Jáaji Approx. (2015) screens at the Walker March 7 as part of the INDIgenesis: GEN2 event Sundance Institute Native Shorts.
For me, an Indigenous lens is the filter that we use to process the world and the way we use that filter as a tool to frame our perspectives, in all their variations and shapes and shades of light. As cinema has its own language and formal choices that evoke certain feelings and emotions congruous to the Western gaze, there too is a cinematic language of Indigeneity. It isn’t a universal language. Far from it. It isn’t a complete language; no language is ever “complete.” Rather, it’s in a state of constant process of adding new ways of looking at the world from a singular perspective and letting lay rest those old ways that just don’t work anymore.
I often think about Indigenous made films from the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s and how there are palpable differences in the subtext of their stories. They’re beloved or reviled, and some have aged much much better than others. And as those films quietly fall into the collective pool of Indigenous cinematic unconsciousness, they have a chance to be rediscovered in some distant future where their contribution will be felt again. The content evolves (and is scaffolded upon), as does the subtext, and what was radical in one era of film is venerated and accepted in the next. The language shifts and aligns to the needs of makers and the audience in the here and now.
An Indigenous lens is also one that needs no permission to be looked through. The biggest lesson I learned while starting out making films is that I don’t need permission to make work that isn’t conventional or breaks the formal rules we’re taught to follow. Rather, the permission that I am seeking is that of the people and the communities I film. This leads to questions of what is appropriate to film and what is not? What stories from our various tribes and communities have been exploited, and how can we pause and ask ourselves if what we’re doing is challenging or reinforcing those insidious practices? And, as we dive deeper into these facets of our culture, we begin to produce stories that are reflective of our traditional beliefs and ways of being. But we’ll be confronted with a lot of questions: what stories do we want to share with the world at large, and what stories do we keep for ourselves? Who is our audience, and how do we reassert our agency in a medium that has long relegated us to content rather than creators?
These questions, and many more that I can’t even imagine, have the potential to be addressed and to be asked. We have to be critical of our works in ways that no one else is. We have to hold ourselves accountable in ways that no one else does. We have to support each other and not fight over who gets to be the token. An Indigenous lens is not only about the way that we look at the world but also how we look at ourselves, how we see ourselves, how we listen to each other, and how we understand that we’re okay.