Graham Richard —
Film co-director Jaada Yahlangnaay Helen Haig-Brown broke into dance on the rooftop of a longhouse at Yaan as production manager Jessie Anthony said the magic words; “That’s a wrap!” Artificial snow tumbled through the smoke hole onto the film crew below as actor StllnGa Tyler York gave co-director Gwaai Gwaai Edenshaw a big hug, leaving him slathered in synthetic blood. The crew had finally finished the last take of the full-length feature film Edge of the Knife, which the cast delivered entirely in Haida language.
The cheering group was the last contingent of the 60-person team that pushed through 29 intense days of filming this July. Most of the 23 actors and 35 crew-members were completely new to film. Only a handful of professionals brought experience from films like White Fang, 300, Lord of the Rings and, most recently, Deadpool.
The legacy of hard-working Haida speakers fueled the initiative. A network of Haida language champions translated the script and helped actors with pronunciation. A smaller group of these dedicated elders hunkered down to camp out for the five-week shoot at the historic Haida village site of Yaan, where a tent-village popped up. The completed film will be one among the many fruits of their determination to pass their knowledge on to the current generation.
Actors developed new skills, grew in confidence and expressiveness, and above all contributed to the revitalization of their language. Pronunciation of the language’s more difficult sounds requires tireless practice, and actors often recited their scenes over and over in the dining tent at the centre of camp. Fluent speakers also had the opportunity to contribute unscripted lines, as actors K’ujúuhl Jane Kristrovich and Ilskyalas Dolores Churchill chattered away with one another, and SGaamsgid Harold Williams improvised through a climactic scene. The project brought fluent speakers from the polar ends of Haida territory, with GwaaGanad Diane Brown coaching and acting in HlGaagilda Xaayad Kil Haida southern dialect and Skil Jaadei Linda Schrack travelling to Yaan from Ketchikan to help coach actors in K’iis Xaad Kil Haida Alaskan dialect.
Lead actor Kuun Jaad Adeana Young and her husband Brandon Kallio brought their four children along as actors. “It was pretty amazing,” she said. “I didn’t ever think I would be in a film, let alone having the whole family there. The kids, since we been out there, they got to share each other’s ideas and play together more. Normally they go their different ways. Having Brandon there was kind of weird for all of us, because normally he’s out on a fishing boat by now. He really enjoyed it. As his wife it was great being out there and seeing how happy he is to spend time with the kids and bond with them, when he doesn’t normally have that time. On set when the kids showed up everybody’s spirit was lifted. For me when that happened I realized that kids are so valuable to everybody. The kids were like medicine for the people out there. They get up in the morning and look forward to spending time with them all day.”
While the film will feature a number of places around Haida Gwaii, the majority was shot at Yaan. The village site is thousands of years old, watching over the mouth of Gaaw Kaahlii Massett Inlet, which reaches to the heart of Haida Gwaii. Rich kelp forests and shaded fields of medicines and berries surround the village. Many generations of kuuniisii lived here and are buried in the woods.
“Oh, it is the most awesome feeling in this world to have our language spoken in this space,” Sphenia Sphenia Jones said to fellow actor Gidin Jaad Erica Ryan-Gagne. “It makes my heart feel so good. It has been a real eye opener. I am going to miss the communications with the loved ones that I have met here. There are so many beautiful people here in Yaan. My time here has been very healing. I could hear drumming coming from the forest early in the morning. It is such a good feeling to wake up to the ancestors. I have had the opportunity to pick medicinal plants while out here, to make my own medicines. I am full of gratitude.”
Singers like Skil Jaadei, Sgaalanglaay Vern Williams, and Jaad Gaadaawaas Samantha Derrick filled the days with music, dance, and storytelling. Song carried the team through tough shoots when tensions ran high, guiding them through prayer every morning and connecting them forever to one another.