SGaawaay K’uuna: world's first Haida-language feature film to be at Vancouver International Film Festival

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      The first feature-length film to be shot with dialogue completely in the Haida language will have its world premiere tomorrow.

      SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) will screen on Thursday (September 6) at the Toronto International Film Festival before it comes to the Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) on October 3 and 5.

      Set in Haida Gwaii in the 19th century, the community-made film features a Haida cast who depict the tale of a man (played by Tyler York) who seeks refuge in the wilderness after being wracked with guilt in the wake of a tragic accident. There, he is transformed into the legendary Gaagiixid, or the Wild Man, prompting his loved ones to capture and cure him.    

      According to a UBC news release about the film, the project dates back to 2011 when UBC planning professor Leonie Sandercock contacted the Haida Nation about hosting practicum students from the university's Indigenous Community Planning program.

      Over time, an idea to create a documentary evolved into the development of a concept for a feature film.

      “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,” producer Jon Frantz and UBC community and regional planning gradudate, stated in the news release. “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.”

      Sandercock applied for a $200,000 grant for the Council of the Haida Nation develop a feature film concept with the UBC School of Community and Regional Planning and IsumaTV, the production company of Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner director Zacharias Kunuk which produces Inuit video stories.

      Edge of the Knife

      To develop the script, Sandercock and Haida collaborators held community-based story-gathering and screenwriting workshops and the classic legend of Gaagiixid eventually became the basis for the film.

      “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 film, codirected by Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, was shot in 2017 with a budget of $1.8 million. The script was translated from English into northern and southern Haida dialects of Gaw Xaad kil and HlGaagilda Xaayda kil.

      Sandercock has received a grant to study the impact the film has on the Haida community over the next four years.

      The film will screen as part of VIFF's Sea to Sky program, which showcases British Columbian films. The 37th edition of VIFF will run from September 27 to October 12.

      You can follow Craig Takeuchi on Twitter at @cinecraig or on Facebook