How the world’s first Haida-language feature film made it to screen
September 5, 2018
One day soon, Graham Richard and the rest of his Haida community will gather in a theatre to watch the movie they created together in their own ancient language. Richard can only imagine what that will feel like.
“The emotional impact of this project is difficult to describe,” he says. “The Haida nation is ecstatic to have taken part and to see the finished product.”
The world will soon see it, too. SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), the first full-length feature shot entirely in the Haida language, will premiere on Thursday at the Toronto International Film Festival. A team of four screenwriters including Richard wrote the film that will transport audiences to 19th-century Haida Gwaii and show them a way of life unknown to many outside the B.C. archipelago. The story takes place in the stunning natural environment where evergreen mountain forests meet the harsh Pacific Ocean, the Haida’s home since time immemorial. Traditional Haida costumes, tattoos and dances will fill the screen, accompanied by drumming, songs and a language that has begun a revival, with young speakers achieving greater fluency.
No other film is quite like it, and only one comes close. Eighteen years ago, director Zacharias Kunuk interpreted the Inuit legend Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, and filmed it entirely in Inuktituk. It won the Camera d’Or award as best debut feature at the Cannes Film Festival. However, it didn’t lead to a Hollywood rush on screenplays that adapted Indigenous legends.
“What’s interesting about the Haida project is it took on a different feel from the get-go, with a community-planning type of approach,” says Jon Frantz, one of the producers. “A film is typically made by a single artist or a director who has a vision, and they are in charge. This project was started more from a broad community base.”
The film’s genesis goes back to 2011, when Haida became interested in the idea of a documentary after UBC planning professor Leonie Sandercock contacted them about hosting practicum students from the university’s new Indigenous Community Planning program.
Sandercock had long been using film as a community-planning tool. She had developed a video ethnography course for UBC, and one of the first to take it was Frantz, then a young grad student in UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning. Frantz’s thesis was about using multimedia for planning purposes, and Sandercock was his advisor. In 2012, Frantz moved to Igloolik, Nunavut, when his wife accepted a nursing job there. The small Arctic community just happened to also be the home base of Zacharias Kunuk, the director.
Frantz connected with Kunuk and his partner Norman Cohn. He began working for their production company, IsumaTV, which produces Inuit video stories. Frantz told them about his work with Sandercock and her ideas for incorporating film into community planning. Cohn met with Sandercock to learn more about her unique approach.
“I don’t think of it like a documentary filmmaker, whose goal typically is to make the film and get it into festivals,” Sandercock says. “My goal is something different. The film is just the first stage of what becomes a community-planning process with specific goals.”
Funding for documentaries was hard to come by, though. Cohn had another idea: apply for funding to make a feature film instead. A movie about Haida, for Haida, by Haida would be a great pitch for a grant application. Since Haida community-planning priorities included language revitalization and economic development, a film in the two Haida dialects that employed Haida people as costume-makers, screenwriters and actors would serve both goals.
Sandercock successfully applied for a $200,000 grant to have the Council of the Haida Nation develop the concept in partnership with UBC’s School of Community and Regional Planning and IsumaTV.
Now they just needed a script.
Sandercock and a group of Haida partners organized a series of story-gathering workshops on Haida Gwaii and began spreading the word. Elders received phone calls telling them about the film, urging them to come out and get involved. The community gathered at Saahlinda Naay (Haida Gwaii Museum) in HlGaagilda (Skidegate) and Tluu Xaadaa Nee (Christian White’s Long House) in Gaw (Old Massett). Food was served and an open flow of ideas was encouraged. The workshops looked a lot like any typical community-planning meeting, with attendees gathered in small groups around tables, students taking notes, tape recorders capturing conversations, and Sandercock working a whiteboard at the front of the room.
Sandercock organized full-day screenwriting workshops that drew teens, elders and everyone in between—including Gwaii Edenshaw, Jaalen Edenshaw, and Richard, who worked as a writer for the Council of the Haida Nation’s newsletter. Sandercock also created a story contest as a way of identifying strong writers and storytellers in the Haida community. She, Frantz and two young Haida film buffs would review submitted stories and select two writers—one from the north and one from the south—so that both major Haida villages and dialects would be represented. The writers would then work with Sandercock to develop a script for the film.
“I wrote my three-page submission to honour our kuuniisii (Haida ancestors),” Richard said.
Richard became the southern writer. From the north, it was the Edenshaw brothers. However, both selected scripts were reincarnation stories that would be expensive to produce with sets and costumes spanning multiple centuries. Needing something simpler, they went back to the piles of notes and recordings that had been gathered during the community workshops.
One story kept coming up: Gaagiixit, or The Wildman.
“I think every member of the Haida community knows or has heard a version of the Wildman story,” Sandercock said of the tale on which the film is based.
Legends of capsized canoes abound in Haida Gwaii, as do tales of one survivor making it to shore and having to survive on his own. Living a long time in the wild can change a person. Even if they are eventually rescued, their mental and emotional state may have deteriorated too much for them to re-join the community.
“The more we thought about that story, the more we thought that metaphorically it has contemporary relevance to Haida people since European contact,” Sandercock said. “People have lost themselves — their culture, their language, their sense of humanity and connection. They lost them in residential schools. And today, people lose themselves to drugs. So the story could work on multiple levels, including metaphorically about addiction, and how you lose yourself when you become addicted. Can you be brought back into the community or not?”
The team of writers met on weekends for months, working from 9 a.m. until dinner at either Sandercock’s apartment in Daajing Giids (Queen Charlotte), or an old, chilly church in Gaw (Massett) owned by Gwaii Edenshaw. Ideas poured forth during brainstorms as wild as any winter day in nearby Hecate Strait—a line of action here, a line of dialogue there, with everyone riffing off each other as fast as Sandercock could type. They didn’t always agree. They were three creative Haida, laying their ideas down like cards on the table, and Sandercock, the trained screenwriter, trying to make sure character and conflict didn’t get lost in the shuffle.
“It was very fun,” Sandercock said, “and it was also the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do.”
Sandercock maintained the project’s focus and direction, but as the only non-Haida writer, she also filled an unexpected role that Richard said was no less important.
“We found that we naturally needed to explain to her many of the culturally esoteric themes the script incorporates,” Richard said. “This helped us to realize which themes and ideas we needed to make more explicit, so non-Haida audiences could understand.”
The production became an economic engine in Haida Gwaii through much of 2017 when the movie was shot for a budget of $1.8 million. Gwaii Edenshaw co-directed along with Helen Haig-Brown.
The most challenging task was hiring actors and teaching them how to deliver lines in the language of their ancestors. Most of the remaining fluent Haida speakers had a hand in translating the script from English into the northern and southern Haida dialects: Gaw Xaad kil and HlGaagilda Xaayda kil. The cast included elders who hadn’t spoken the language in more than 60 years, ever since residential schools forbade them from doing so. Those actors had to reach deep, often past painful memories, to find their words and sounds.
Richard spent 27 days on set as a script supervisor, and used his downtime to explore the woods, coastline and water around Yaan, the historic Haida village of his ancestors.
One day of filming, in particular, has stuck with him.
“Towards the end of shooting one of our characters burns a Gaagiixit (Wildman) mask. This act has ceremonial significance that crossed the boundary between fictional acting and the real world. As we silently shot and watched the mask burning for about an hour, the whole project passed into reality.”
Sandercock believes the film will make an impact on audiences. Her next task, as an academic, is to measure the impact it has on the Haida community. She has received a grant to study this over the next four years.
Richard is already starting to see the impact, in tangible forms like incomes and media content, and more abstract forms like inspiration, connection to place, and national dignity.
“Our script created the room and balance necessary for all members of our cast to fully participate and learn a portion of our language,” he said. “This script provided fresh soil in which ecosystems of healing have begun to sprout.”
And that was all before the film even made it to the screen.
Edge of the Knife will premiere Sept. 6 at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is also scheduled for Oct. 3 and 5 at the 2018 Vancouver International Film Festival.