Pow wows to film fests, chronicle of culture finds audience

In “Jáaji Approx.”, filmmaker Sky Hopinka takes viewers on an abstract journey through places, time and a life.

The seven-minute experimental film, which has already won a number of awards, combines breathtaking scenery, Ho-Chunk stories and music and an exploration of the bond between father and son.

Hopinka, a filmmaker enrolled in graduate school in UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, grew up in the Pacific Northwest, but wanted to re-engage with his father and his father’s people in Wisconsin’s Ho-Chunk Nation.

Hopinka’s parents divorced when he was a toddler. He maintained only occasional contact with his father, who traveled the pow wow circuit. Over 10 years, Hopinka taped their conversations, stories and songs.

While attending Portland State University in Oregon, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in liberal studies, Hopinka became interested in film as a way of storytelling. In his Native American cinema class, he asked if he could make a film rather than write a paper.

“It opened up a lot of possibilities for me.”

Reviving a language, recording a life

An academic advisor from the Ho-Chunk Nation Higher Education Division suggested that Hopinka pursue his interest in film at UWM’s Peck School of the Arts, located in the heart of the Ho-Chunk Nation. Hopinka found UWM and Milwaukee the perfect place study film, pursue his roots and learn his father’s language. Only 70 or 80 fluent native speakers of Ho-Chunk are left, according to Hopinka, and he wanted to play a part in reviving the language. (He already spoke and had taught Chinuk Wawa, an indigenous language from the Pacific Northwest).

“Wisconsin and UWM offered access points into a broader culture I hadn’t been part of in my youth,” Hopinka said. “I also wanted to explore my relationship with my father and the ways we interacted with each other through songs and stories.”

The idea for the film, which takes its name from the Ho-Chunk word for father, came to him on a road trip from Wisconsin to Seattle, down through Portland and Los Angeles and south back to Wisconsin.

“I realized my father and I probably drove through these same landscapes – 30 years apart. I got out my camera and started shooting. That led me to putting the images I was gathering alongside the recordings I made of him. ”

The film recreates the father and son’s separate journeys in poetic, stunning images of deserts, pine forests, rivers, roads and bridges, with the father’s voice talking, telling stories and singing the old songs.

“It’s like the relationship I have with my father is through these recordings and these landscapes,” Hopinka explained. “The sounds and the sights make an approximation of the relationship between us and ways of trying to engage with one another.”

“Jáaji Approx.” placed third in the Media City Film Festival, and Hopinka was awarded a Princess Grace Foundation fellowship to finish his studies at UWM.

On Friday, Oct. 16, the film will screen at the 16th annual imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival in Toronto, billed as the world’s largest indigenous media arts festival.

Hopinka plans to work with the Wisconsin Ho-Chunk community and expand the film into a broader documentary exploring contemporary Ho-Chunk life. Eventually, he’d like to become a teacher at an Indian college, while continuing to make films.

“There’s a lot being done already to preserve the language and the culture. I just want to contribute to that to the best of my abilities and the best way I know how.”

Here is a look at “Jáaji Approx,” and a brief interview with Hopinka.

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