‘Malni — Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore’ Review: Embracing Our Ghosts

An essential portrait of contemporary Indigenous life that resists the touristic gaze, “Małni — Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore,” the debut feature from the Ho-Chunk artist and filmmaker Sky Hopinka, isn’t too concerned with whether we fully understand the traditions and rituals it entrancingly commits to screen. It refreshingly centers the Native perspective, and beckons audiences onto its wavelength by tapping into something more intuitive, the stuff of dreams.

“You don’t have to say much,” says one of the film’s two subjects, Sweetwater Sahme, as she leads the filmmaker on a hike through the mountains of the Pacific Northwest, gesturing at the quivering foliage. “It’s a feeling, an energy. And there’s so much to look at.”

The documentary, anchored in the Chinookan origin-of-death myth (a dialogue between a wolf and a coyote about the afterlife), separately follows two young parents — pregnant Sahme and Jordan Mercier, both friends of Hopinka’s — as they grapple with questions of legacy and identity.

Subtitles switch between English and Chinook jargon, yet the oral component (including Hopinka’s narration) occasionally fades into the backdrop with sound design that amplifies the crackling of a fire, the bubbling and thrashing of the ocean and waterfalls.

The natural world, with its never-ending tides and its cycles of life and death, provides a framework for the preservation of Indigenous culture, resilient despite its new forms and manifestations. An extended interlude sees a Native song and dance performed inside a school gymnasium. In voice-over, Sahme considers the link between her unborn child and her grandmother while a long canoe makes its way down a river lined with cranes and factories.

An undeniable melancholy — a sense of loss — pervades the film. Yet it is never resigned. The ghosts of history live among us. To ignore their presence, “Małni” seems to say, is to forget who we really are.

Malni — Towards the Ocean, Towards the Shore
Not rated. In English and Chinook jargon, with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 22 minutes. On Metrograph’s virtual cinema.

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