VIFF 2018 Review: Edge Of The Knife (SG̲aawaay Ḵ’uuna)
One of my goals each VIFF is to see a Canadian feature-length film. I had the good fortune when I went to see Edge Of The Knife. Not only is it a Canadian feature, but possibly the only feature-length film ever completely in the Haida language!
The film begins with the carving of a wooden mask and then burning it in a fire. The story begins with a meeting of two Haida families over at the Haida Gwaii in Northwestern BC in the 19th Century. It’s an annual fishing camp the families have together. Adiits’ii is the oldest son of and close to the family of Kwa and his son Gaas, who sees Adiits’ii as his mentor. Kwa’s wife Hlaaya finds his appetite for challenges to be too reckless for her son. However Adiits’ii often feels belittled by his own family. Sometimes Kwa makes him feel inferior.
In the evening, Adiits’ii decides to take Gaas onto the waters on boat. Overnight a storm hits the coast. The families fear the worst for Adiits’ii and Gaas. The next morning, the bad news. Gaas is found dead on the coast. Adiits’ii is missing and presumed dead. However Adiits’ii is still alive. He’s in a remote forested location and feels he can’t return because of the reactions from others he fears. Secluded, he becomes overtaken by a huge spirit. He transforms into a Gaagiid/Gaagiixiid — the legendary Haida Wildman — and his behaviors become feral and even demonic. The whole family searches for Adiits’ii. Kwa and his wife are first to discover Adiits’ii, but lashes out at him wanting to kill him. The wife tries to stop him, but that leads Kwa to speak out his belief of who he thinks Gaas’ true father is. The families work to get Adiits’ii captured before they can free him from his possession. They set up a trap and they succeed. It’s at a ritualistic ceremony that involves prayer and piercing of the chest that they have to free Adiits’ii from the possession of the Gaagiixiid. The film ends with Adiits’ii carving out a mask out of wood, the very mask seen at the beginning, and burning it. At the end, we notice it’s in the image of how Adiits’ii was when possessed by the Gaagiixiid.
As far as film quality goes, this is a film I’d call great, but not excellent. The story is very good as it focuses on physical actions and unspoken feelings. However I have seen Canadian films with better dialogue and better story lines. Culturally, this is an excellent film as it captures the Haida culture and the Haida language without any interruption of the English language. Also it captures Haida mythology with excellence. It introduces us to the Gaagiixid. I am not familiar with Haida culture at all, but the film gives me a good understanding about the mythological belief of other beings. We should remember that Adiits’ii is a person with personal demons. He feels like the misfit and he feels like he’s belittled. Although he doesn’t say it, it’s obvious. After the accidental death of Gaas, it’s his guilt that gets the best of him and runs away. It’s there when he turns into the Gaagiixid. I believe the Gaagiixid is all about his personal demons and bad self-image. He had to conquer the Gaagiixid inside of him to truly come to peace with who he is and what he did.
SPOILER WARNING – Ending Revealed In This Paragraph: The film begins with the scene of a mask being carved of wood and then burned in a fire. At first one would wonder why would a person burn a mask that was just carved? Then it’s repeated at the end. At the end, you see that the mask is the image Adiits’ii had as he was fighting his inner demon. Then as you see it burn again, you see why. It’s like the final step in ending the demon inside. That scene is a good interpretation of Haida culture and Haida mythology.
This is an accomplishment of a film as far as culture goes. First off, this is a film done by not one, but two First Nations directors: Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. Secondly, this is a film done completely in the Haida language. This is a film that is essential for the language. At first, Haida was the only language the people spoke. However with the happenings of past history and with modernization, there are only twenty fluent Haida-speakers left. Even though there is educating young people inn the Haida language or even a resurgence of bringing back the language, the struggle is still there. This film does an excellent job in displaying the language and the culture of the Haida people. The idea of the film came back in 2011 by University professor Leonie Sandercock. In making the film, those involved received a Partnership Development Grant of $200,000 from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, so even arts funds knew of the importance of this film to be made. Also to create a time before European settlers arrived really involved a lot of effort.
Also the film has been widely welcomed and celebrated by the Haida peoples and other First Nations peoples of BC. I remember a couple of times during the VIFF, I was waiting to see a film after Edge Of The Knife over at the theatre I was to attend. Each time I was in line, I was given the news that there would be a 30-40 minute delay of the start of my film. As Edge Of The Knife finished, I saw more than just people exiting. I saw some dressed in traditional First Nations costume. Some even brought drums and performed a song of celebration. When I saw that, I felt I had to see Edge Of The Knife when I had the chance. This was more than just something. I’m glad I did.
Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown did an excellent job in directing and creating a world far back in the past and appear authentic. The script by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, Graham Richard and Sandercock was not too intense in terms of dialogue, but it does present a very good story that’s more about emotions and image-based. Tyler York did a very good job as Adiits’ii. His acting was more about what was inside of him rather than what he said. Willy Russ almost stole the show as Kwa. The actors involved are more of a Haida community rather than actors by profession. All did a very good job. The film was light on special effects, but the effects fit the film and the scenes right. It didn’t need more effects than necessary.
Edge Of The Knife may not be the best Canadian film I’ve seen or even the best of subject of First Nations peoples. However this is a very culturally-important film that deserves to be shown. It also tells its story in both an entertaining and mesmerizing way. Definitely worth seeing.