Co-director and Haida artist Gwaai Edenshaw discusses his landmark film Edge of the Knife (Sgaawaay K’uuna), the first feature film made in the Haida language. This is an excerpt from the ebook The Canadian Cinema Yearbook which is available for purchase here.
Sgaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) is the first feature film made entirely in the endangered Haida language, currently spoken by less than 20 people. Set in the 19th century on the Haida Gwaii islands off Canada’s pacific coast, the film tells the Haida legend of ‘the Wildman’. Adiits’ii (Tyler York) joins his friends Kwa (William Russ) and Hlaaya (Adeana Young) and their young son (Trey Rorick) at their summer island fishing village. The boy idolizes Adiits’ii and follows him everywhere, even out fishing in a storm, which results in the boy’s death. Distraught, Adiits’ii isolates himself in the forest while the rest of the community leaves for the winter. This isolation turns him into a Gaagiid (wildman) as he loses his humanity and grasp of reality. When his community returns the next summer, the elders take it upon themselves to find him and help him heal, as well as help Kwa and Hlaaya find it in themselves to forgive.
Edge of the Knife is co-directed by Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Helena Haig-Brown and Haida carver and jeweller Gwaai Edenshaw. The film is produced by Isuma productions, an Inuit company dedicated to preserving Indigenous cultures and languages; Isuma also produced the groundbreaking film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (Zacharias Kunuk, 2000).
Edge of the Knife builds on Isuma Productions’ emphasis on putting Indigenous stories first, and not in conversation with Western approaches, as is usually the case. In fact, the film is set even before the Haida Nation had any contact with European colonizers (also known as ‘pre-contact’). This choice allows the film to showcase Haida history and culture on its own terms rather than through the way it was altered by Western invasion. This approach also assumes the audience is either familiar with the cultural context, or can quickly learn by watching — the film doesn’t sidetrack to explain traditional Haida practices.
Edenshaw talked to us in Toronto about developing the film, transferring skills from one artform to another, and who gets to tell Indigenous stories.
Seventh Row (7R): What interested you in telling this story for the first Haida language film?
Gwaai Edenshaw (GE): There were four of us writing it — Leoni Sandercock, Graham Richard, Jaalen my little brother, and me — and we arrived at it collectively through a pretty convoluted process.The Gaagiid story is super common among our people, so everyone is at least obliquely familiar with it. Its dance is used in most potlatches, and going back into history, it’s been an ubiquitous performance. But there are misconceptions. It’s treated as if it is the Sasquatch [Bigfoot] story. We thought we could at once tell a familiar story but also disambiguate that story.
7R: How did you decide on the time period to set it in, especially the flash forward [the film ends with a brief scene set decades later, with an elderly Adiits’ii dressed in European clothing] at the end?
GE: I don’t want to break the magic here, but initially, it was a practical decision made before we even wrote one word on paper. It had to do with what we anticipated we would be working with as a budget. We didn’t want to make a story that was about European contact, but our clothing is so expensive to make. And for example, for our elders, we wanted to be able to use wool blankets on set. Even if we did everything in the early 1700s or 1600s, something post-contact might slip through, so we just wanted to make it easy on ourselves that there could be some technologies around that are post-contact.
7R: What was the experience of making your first film?
GE: I had a production company with my brother Jaalen, and we do animations. We have somewhere between six and ten, all in the Haida language, so that people can hear the Haida language spoken. This film expands that dream exponentially.
7R: Did you find skills from your previous artistic practices transferred to filmmaking?
GE: Yeah, you call on the rhythm of how our art goes together. These conceptions of tension in our line are things we are trying to build into the narrative of the movie. Also, I was up all night before a scene carving a mask or something, so I was still using the old skills to help.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.