Stunning Haida film shown

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By Therin Gower

SS Film Festival

The stunning film SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) will be shown Wednesday, Nov. 28 at 7 p.m. at ArtSpring.

Salt Spring Film Festival is honoured to host this unprecedented creation: a full-length film entirely in the Haida language, filmed in Haida Gwaii and inspired by oral history.  We are also thrilled to welcome director Gwaii Edenshaw, who will answer questions after the film.

Edge of the Knife opens with two branches of a family happily re-uniting at their summer fishing camp. But this year the relationship between Kwa and his best friend Adiits’ii is strained by Kwa’s son’s preference for the daring and attractive Adiits’ii. A tragic accident drives Adiits’ii into the forest, and in his anguish he becomes Gaagiixiid, the Wildman. With all rationality gone, in a frenzy of self-torture, he manages to survive the winter alone and near starvation. His relations return the next year, hoping to find Adiits’ii and restore him to sanity and connection with his kin. To achieve reconciliation, all must find understanding, cleansing, and forgiveness. 

The film is the result of a unique four-year collaboration between the Council of The Haida Nation, Skidegate Band Council, Old Masset Village Council, the University of British-Columbia, and Isuma Distribution International (producers of indigenous films such as Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner), with that company’s Zacharias Kunuk as executive producer and mentor.  The goal was to use the film as a catalyst for revitalizing and celebrating Haida language and culture.

Elders and other experts from these organizations helped directors Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown to nurture a meticulous re-creation of all aspects of life in Haida Gwaii. Exquisite traditional clothing and tools are all authentic or carefully crafted reproductions. The film was deliberately set in the 1800’s when there was scant influence from Europeans and smallpox had not yet devastated the community.  Traditional arts such as tattooing add to the fascinating and comprehensive depiction of life in Haida Gwaii. As hoped, there has been a blossoming of interest in learning these arts and crafts as well as the language.

A script was written by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, Graham Richard, and Leonie Sandercock after consultation with the community, and with input from elders. The Gaagiixiid/Gaagiid is frequently featured in oral tradition and dance and makes a perfect allegory for alienation due to loss of self, loss of culture, substance abuse, and other trauma. The possibility of release from the Wildman spirit heralds the possibility of reconciliation to clan, to community, and between indigenous groups.

Haida language experts came from as far as Alaska to translate the script into three Haida dialects and to immerse the actors in a language boot camp. Although the cast and crew are predominantly Haida, few were fluent speakers of the language before this time.

The language challenge makes it all the more impressive that Tyler York plays Adiits’ii with careless charm that plummets convincingly into a visceral delirium and unhuman physicality.  William Russ and Adeana Young are also strong in parts that are less physically demanding but full of raw emotion as Kwa and his wife.

Besides film, Gwaii Edenshaw explores his culture through a wide number of avenues: carving, assisting Michael Nicoll Yahgulanaas with the graphic novel A Tale of Two Shamans, creating jewellery and bentwood boxes, and participating in theatre, including being a founding member of the Q’altsi’da Kaa players and being nominated for a Jesse for his work on Vancouver Playhouse Theatre’s Beyond Eden.

In 2013, Edenshaw assisted his brother with carving the Gwaii Haanas Legacy Pole, the first totem pole to be raised in the Gwaii Haanas area for 130 years. It was created to commemorate 20 years of the Haida Nation and the Canadian government jointly working to protect and preserve the area, which is now Gwaii Haanas National Park.

At a time when we work toward reconciliation between indigenous communities and non-indigenous Canadians, SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) gives some insight into what true reconciliation requires.

Tickets are $15 through the ArtSpring box office. 

The film is classified as 14A and not recommended for children. Content warning: some graphic violence, a tragic death, mature themes.

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