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.
British Columbia, especially Greater Vancouver, is known for people using radical and even destructive methods to make their statement heard on an issue. One such person who’s lesser known in Grant Hadwin who cut down a beloved tree on the Queen Charlotte Islands in 1997. The documentary Hadwin’s Judgement traces Hadwin’s path from logger to radical to his mysterious disappearance.
The film is almost like a biography of Grant Hadwin and the moments in his life that changed him forever. Grant Hadwin was born in West Vancouver. He came from a logging family and eventually found himself working on the Queen Charlotte Islands. However he soon developed an anger when he saw how much forest was being cut down from the island and how fast with the modern cutting methods. He writes letters of complaints to businesses. He even tries to start his own business which makes products out of decayed wood or wood long cut down but it doesn’t succeed.
The deforestation of the area along with his mental instability takes his toll on him and he cuts down the sacred tree of the island– the 1000 year-old Kiidk’yaas (The Golden Spruce)— to send his message. He awaited trial with many a person angry at him. However Grant pursues a kayaking trip up the Boeing Strait. He is never seen again although his broken kayak, letter in lamination and tools have been found intact. He has still never been found dead or alive.
The film is mostly a documentary featuring people who mostly knew Grant during his lifetime. It features co-workers to friends to a local photographer who photographed him swimming just before his disappearance to John Vaillant who wrote an award-winning book on him. It also interviews people of the Haida Gwaii who knew the tree. The Haida Gwaii consider trees to be sacred so it’s no wonder the chopping of that tree would hurt them deeply.
However the film doesn’t just present people interviewed. It also provides people first-hand knowledge of the Haida Gwaii people, their legends and their beliefs. It provides insight to Grant’s feelings around the time and includes narration of the letters he wrote in his protests. It even includes moments in Grant’s life re-enacted by actor Doug Chapman playing Grant. Doug never utters a word of dialogue in his acting but it’s like you’re reading Grant’s mind just with the looks on his face. You could see why Grant would lose his patience with what was happening and do what he did. It still remains a question. Was it Grant’s attitude to the deforestation of the area? Or was it a mental imbalance? Or both? Even I myself wondered if he valued trees so much why would he cut the sacred Golden Spruce down? I later assumed Grant did it possibly to say to all those logging companies: “You want wood so bad? Here’s your wood, bastards!” That’s my belief to why he did it. People snap.
Despite the storytelling, narration and re-enacting of Grant’s moments, the best attribute of the documentary has to be the cinematography. Right from the start, you see images of the rain forest, an aerial view of Queen Charlotte Island and a panoramic shot of the forest. Already images of beauty that tell what this island is all about and why the island’s natural features are important. It’s not just beautiful images like those that make the film but the uglier images too. The film includes footage of the tree cutting mechanisms through all angles. You can see just how they can cut down a whole tree in seconds. You can see why through such mechanisms looms the threat of deforestation. So much cutting in so little time. The film also shows the ugly aftermaths of all the trees cut down. There’s one panoramic view that not only shows a wide forest but of a cut-down area. That’s one of the many eyesores. Other eyesores include closer shots of land that used to be forests, images of piles of dry dead wood and the biggest of all: the Golden Spruce down on the ground with its leaves soaking in the river. Even single images like that of a freighter full of logs tells the story of the land and why Grant Hadwin was compelled to make such a judgement. Shots that included Grant also provided for the storytelling including the site of his broken kayak.
Sasha Snow did a great job in creating a documentary that gives people’s opinions of Grant through all angles and even re-enacts some of his key moments. Sasha not only includes those that know him but the local Haida Gwaii and author Vaillant. Sasha made a lot of smart choices in telling the story such as having an actor act out Grant’s moments instead of showing photographs. In fact we only see one photograph of Grant in the film right at the very end.
Hadwin’s Judgement is more than a documentary. It takes you inside the person, the land, the people of the land and the economic pressures of the times. I don’t know if the film completely supports Hadwin’s decision but it provides the reasons why he did it.