Coming to the William Lake Film Club this Friday fresh from the Vancouver and Toronto International Film Festivals is local Indigenous filmmaker Helen Haig-Brown’s Edge of the Knife.
A member of Yunesit’in of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, Haig-Brown has been a resident of Williams Lake and the surrounding region for years. She got into filmmaking as a way to be a vessel for the untold stories she saw all around her. Her filmmaking background has primarily been in documentaries, though she has done some work in fictional short films, such as the Chilcotin based film The Cave which on to place in the TIFF top 10 in 2009.
“I went to film school close-minded in some degree, I just wanted them to give me the skills and tools to make a film,” Haig-Brown remembered. “Slowly I actually fell in love with the art of film and I found more and more in life I’ve taken myself less and less seriously.”
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Edge of the Knife or Sgaawaay K’uuna is the most recent in a line of her films based on Indigenous stories and experiences. It is also the first film to ever be shot purely in dialects of the Haida language.
“There are only just over 20 speakers of the Haida language left and we did the film completely in the Haida language, so we really focused on that and we involved at least half of those language speakers who are left. Either in acting in the film or coaching the actors who didn’t speak the language,” Haig-Brown said. “That journey, which was very emotional, very powerful and super invigorating, having the people who were the last few speakers and also those language champions, people who have committed their lives to try to regenerate the language. We’re really kind of excited by this creative process we did to involve the language.”
Set on Haida Gwaii, renamed the Queen Charlotte Islands in colonial times, in the mid-1800s century it tells the tale of two families meeting for their annual fishing retreat. A young careless man named Adiits’ii accidentally causes a tragedy during their gathering and grief-stricken, flees into the woods.
Left behind and haunted by his guilt he goes mad and becomes Gaagiixid, Wildman, a supernatural being crazed by hunger. When the families return the next year they seek to reconnect with the man within the monster and bring humanity back to Adiits’il.
“This film was pretty exciting in nature to me, even from the beginning because it was a collaboration between Isuma Iglooik Productions from Nunavut and the Haida Nation,” Haig-Brown said.
She was particularly happy to collaborate with Isuma for their community-minded approach to filmmaking and work on the 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. For Haig-Brown and many other Indigenous peoples, this was the first time in the film she felt a film was representative of the culture it was trying to capture and is a philosophy she tries to imbue into her own films.
For Edge of the Knife she used the community approach to filmmaking, working closely with current residents of Haida Gawii while giving everyone a voice on the project. Indeed, one of the writers and her co-director for the film Gwaai Edenshaw is a member of the Haida Nation, further involving the community with the project.
Most of all Haig-Brown said that she, the crew, the cast and everyone involved all just had fun making this film. From boating out to the old village site they shot the film on, to building a tent city to live in during the six-week shoot, she said they became like a family living out there connected by the creative process.
Which makes it all the more gratifying that it has received attention from both the TIFF and VIFF, making its national premiere in Toronto on Sept. 7, 2018.
“I think it’s really exciting because, on the one end, I’d already felt the success and the joy in the process of making the film. We screened it over two days in Haida Gawii and over a 1,000 people showed up and they loved it,” Haig-Brown said. “Then for it to premiere at TIFF which is one of the top three film festivals in the world and it created quite a buzz there.”
For its two showings at VIFF in October, Haig-Brown said tickets sold out within a week and that the festival had to add a third date. All this interest from the wider general public in the film and the culture it’s based on has been really invigorating for Haig-Brown.
The next major project she’s excited about will be a local film that she’s always wanted to do. Based on the Chilcotin War of 1864, Haig-Brown said much like Edge of the Knife, she’ll be working closely with the community, shooting in the appropriate language and doing tons of research over the next few months to do it right.
“It’s going to be a multi-year project,” Haig-Brown remarked, adding that she hopes to hire all local actors, seamstresses and consultants when the time comes.
Edge of the Knife opens this Friday, Dec. 14 at 6:30, with the show starting at 7 pm. Hosted in the Gibraltar Room, advance tickets are available now at the Open Book and will be purchasable at the door.
The film brought home three awards at the VIFF including Best Canadian Film, Best BC Film and Most Popular Canadian Film. In Toronto, it also brought home the Sun Jury Award at the ImagineNATIVE Film Festival and the TIFF Top Ten Award of 2018.