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.
7R: What is co-directing [with Helen Haig-Brown] like?
GE: I’ve worked collaboratively on totem poles with my brother, and I knew it comes with its own sense of advantages and challenges. Me and Helen slipped into a team quite easily. She intuitively understood things about the story, even when it was a blank script. Her experience was a real boon on set. But I don’t know what solo directing is like!
7R: There have been several Indigenous stories directed by white people at this festival and last year’s. The explanation often given is that they have difficulty finding Indigenous directors. How do you think the opportunity provided by this film fits into this discussion?
GE: As artists, we have this duty to our craft. We want to make the best thing possible, at the same time as we want to give opportunities to Indigenous people. I’ll use my other life as an example: if you want to cast something into bronze, you don’t sacrifice the quality of your work just to find an Indigenous person. But for us, one of our goals in the beginning was to create capacity in our Nation, so we had a system of understudying for our own people. It does seem a weak excuse to say there are not Indigenous directors around. Fine to pick the person you think will best deliver your vision, but there are excellent Indigenous directors out there.
7R: Now that you’ve built that capacity, what are your hopes for future Haida filmmaking?
GE: We’ve got about six stories lined up. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to get them made. If we prove ourselves with this, and people like it, that greatly enhances the possibility we will make more. There is a lot of learning that goes into the process, so I would like [another chance] to execute some of that again.
7R: Your lead actor, Tyler York — how did he come on board? It’s a really demanding, physical performance.
GE: Tyler is a remarkable character. We’ve hired him as an apprentice on totem pole projects, so I knew about his understanding of position in space. That was to our advantage and our disadvantage: one of his acting challenges was learning to let go of his athleticism as he entered into that Gaagiid stage, finding that more raw performance. Because of his basketball experience [York played university basketball], he could easily slip into a martial stance.
Earlier in the year, he had suffered a concussion. He was struggling with the fallout from that, which created unique challenges but fell in line with the story we are telling; the story is an allegory around mental health and a community’s response.
The last [historical] Gaagiid, out of Masset [a Haida village], had a gold tooth. In the scene where Tyler was first eating after becoming Gaagiid, he goes at the mussels. He got a bit enthusiastic and wound up cracking one of his teeth and having a gold tooth put in.
7R: Is there anything else about the filmmaking process you would like to highlight?
GE: Adeana Young [who plays Hlaaya] was a method actor. She reached into some very personal experiences for her performance. She told me, “I’m probably the best person to take this job” because she had done the work on herself so she could access those places. I was telling her to guard her heart because of where she was going, and she was able to keep perspective when she went to her places.
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As part of our efforts to emphasize the exciting Indigenous cinema that’s been emerging in Canada (and around the world) in the last few years, we also interviewed Ojibway filmmaker Darlene Naponse at TIFF about her new film, Falls Around Her. Last year, we talked to Inuk filmmaker Alethea Arnaquq-Baril (also at TIFF this year as one of the producers of The Grizzlies) about Angry Inuk and its depictions of the importance of seal meat to Inuit culture. Back at TIFF 2017, we talked to Kaytej director Warwick Thornton about Sweet Country, which retells this chapter of Australian history from an Indigenous perspective.
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We also talked to legendary Abenaki documentarian Alanis Obomsawin about her hopeful documentary on Indigenous centred school, Our People Will Be Healed. You can also read this interview in our Documentary Masters eBook.