Edge of the Knife

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Edge of the Knife
The words "SG̲aawaay Ḵ'uuna" and "Edge of the Knife"
Haida SG̲aawaay Ḵ'uuna
Directed by
Produced by
  • Jonathan Frantz
  • Stephen Grosse
Written by
  • Tyler York
  • William Russ
  • Adeana Young
Music by Kinnie Starr
Cinematography Jonathan Frantz
Edited by Sarah Hedar
Niijang Xyaalas Productions
Distributed by Isuma
Release date
  • 7 September 2018 (2018-09-07) (Toronto)
Running time
100 minutes[1]
Country Canada
Language Haida
(with English subtitles)
Budget C$1,890,000[2]

Edge of the Knife (Haida: SG̲aawaay Ḵ'uuna) is a 2018 Canadian drama film co-directed by Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. It is the first feature film spoken only in dialects of the Haida language. Set in 19th-century Haida Gwaii, it tells the classic Haida story of the traumatized and stranded man transformed to Gaagiixiid, the wildman.

With input from Haida Gwaii residents, the screenplay was written in 2015 by Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw, Graham Richard, and Leonie Sandercock with the aim to preserve and teach Haida, an endangered language. Contributors to the film's budget of C$1,890,000 include the Council of the Haida Nation, the Canada Media Fund, and Telefilm Canada. The film was created primarily by indigenous people, including the co-directors, a mostly amateur crew, and the Haida cast. In 2017, Edge of the Knife actors received lessons on Haida pronunciation from fluent speakers throughout the five weeks of filming and during a two-week training camp.

First shown on 1 September 2018 to Haida Gwaii residents, who the film's creators said were their primary audience, Edge of the Knife made its public premiere six days later at the Toronto International Film Festival.


In a 19th-century summer, two large families gather for their annual fishing retreat on the far-removed island of Haida Gwaii. Adiits'ii, a charming nobleman, accidentally causes the death of his best friend Kwa's son and hastens into the wilderness. Adiits'ii is tormented by what he has done and spirals into insanity, becoming Gaagiixid, a supernatural being crazed by hunger. He unexpectedly survives the winter, and at next year's gathering, the families try to convert Gaagiixid back to Adiitst'ii.



The secrets of who we are are wrapped up in our language. It’s how we think. How we label our world around us. It's also a resistance to what was imposed on us.

Gwaai Edenshaw, co-writer and co-director[3]

The idea to make Edge of the Knife came from University of British Columbia professor Leonie Sandercock and Haida Gwaii community organizers who wanted to encourage learning Haida, classified as an endangered language with fewer than 20 speakers at the time of production.[4][5] With advice from fluent speakers Diane Brown and Harold Yeltatzie, the writing team spent twelve months conducting interviews, workshops, and film screenings in Old Massett and Skidegate, two predominantly Haida communities in Haida Gwaii, British Columbia.[6][7] Sandercock later wrote that three major items of importance for Haida Gwaii residents were reviving the language, keeping jobs on the island, and protecting its land and waters. After an idea-submission contest, Haida people brothers Gwaai and Jaalen Edenshaw as well as Graham Richard joined Sandercock in 2014 to begin work on the script.[6][2]

Woman sitting with woven basket
Delores Churchill, a Haida weaver, in 2006. She helped translate the Edge of the Knife script into the two dialects of Haida.

The writers decided to develop the dramatic[8] story of the Haida wildman (called Gaagiixiid or Gaagiid), a common Haida narrative which follows someone who survives an accident at sea and whose humanity declines as they survive.[6] The Gaagiixiid story serves as an allegory for any struggle, mental or physical.[7] The screenplay was completed in April 2015, and Delores Churchill with the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program (SHIP) translated the script into the two dialects of Haida.[6] The writers strove to accurately represent Haida culture before colonizer contact, speaking with elders, and Jaalen Edenshaw conducted archival research.[2] The film's title refers to the Haida proverb "The world is as sharp as the edge of a knife; as you go along you have to be careful or you will fall off one side or the other."[9][nb 1] In Haida, the title is SG̲aawaay K'uuna.[10]

The production for Edge of the Knife was done with C$1,800,000 in funding,[2] including support from Telefilm Canada,[8] the Council of the Haida Nation, the Canada Media Fund, and British Columbia and federal tax credits.[7] The Gwaii Trust put C$100,000 toward the film.[11] "The film reflects a resurgence of indigenous art and culture taking place across Canada," Catherine Porter wrote for The New York Times in 2017.[3] Some support for the film is meant to promote reconciliation for the residential school system, which prohibited indigenous students from learning their native languages.[3]

Jonathan Frantz, of Kingulliit Productions, produced the film through the nascent Niijang Xyaalas Productions and was director of photography.[2][12] Zacharias Kunuk is the film's executive producer.[12] Edge of the Knife was co-directed by Gwaai Edenshaw (in his debut), who is Haida, and Helen Haig-Brown, who is Tsilhqot'in.[7][13] With Edge of the Knife, filmmakers intended to preserve Haida language and culture for future generations.[14]

Casting took place in June 2016. Actor Brandon Kallio, a commercial fisherman whose only Haida was picked up from his children's homework, found the call for auditions on Facebook. He brought his wife Adeana Young and their four children to his audition, and they all received roles in this film.[4] Though Young was more hesitant to join the production than Kallio, she later said she ended up enjoying the filmmaking process and hoped to become a fluent Haida speaker.[4]


None of the starring actors could hold a conversation in Haida before joining the film.[3] In April 2017, the all-Haida cast[3] gathered for two weeks to learn lines and the pronunciation of Haida words. Every day after language activities together, actors would break into smaller groups, sometimes individually, for teaching by fluent speakers. The actors had most of their lines memorized one week into the language-training session.[15] Workshops included voice coaching and acting lessons.[16][nb 2] The actor training cost a total of C$100,000; producer Frantz said he considered dubbing difficult lines in post-production.[3]

Trees and greenery on Haida Gwaii
Edge of the Knife was filmed and set on Haida Gwaii.

Filming was planned to begin in June 2017 in Yan, a Haida village on the Masset Inlet coast.[16] Few crew members were professional, and most of the cast had no previous acting experience.[17][nb 3] A longhouse was constructed for the set, and local Haida provided costumes and traditional, hand-poked chest tattoos of family crests.[3] Though the clans featured in Edge of the Knife are fictional, the tattoos of crests the actors received were based on their real-life identity.[18][nb 4]

In the week of 23 May 2017, the 23 actors and 35 crew members commenced production, and the cast and crew camped out in Yan during the five weeks of filming.[17][nb 5] The crew brought people, cameras, and equipment to Yan by boat; rain and wind interrupted several shoots. During filming, the crew paid particular attention to avoiding anachronisms such as evidence of deer and logging, which had not yet been introduced to Haida Gwaii in the 1800s. All of the film was shot on the island. Two weeks into filming, Gwaai Edenshaw and Frantz scouted a wooded location near Port Clements to find the tree for the "key sequence" where the Gaagixiid (played by Tyler York) leaves society and builds a home.[7]

The few Haida-fluent actors improvised several lines, and many actors regularly rehearsed in the center camp's dining tent.[17] During the recording process, actors continued learning to improve their pronunciation with the assistance of elders who spoke Haida.[7] Elders also provided counsel for the design of cultural elements like costumes and sets: "I'm the boss unless the elders say otherwise," Edenshaw jokingly said.[7]

73-year-old Sphenia Jones, who went through the residential school system, was an actress in Edge of the Knife and had not spoken Haida since she was a teenager. "It feels so good [to speak Haida]," she said, "mainly because I can say it out loud without being afraid."[3] While on set, Haida musician Vern Williams created songs for Edge of the Knife featuring a drum and his singing.[3] Filming was scheduled to end on 2 July.[7]


Musician Kinnie Starr composed the film's score.[9] In January 2017, the film, which is the first feature-length film only in Haida dialects, was expected to be complete by the end of the year with a 2017 release.[19][20] In November 2017, the film was in editing[4] and called "currently in post-production" in late March 2018.[21] It has English subtitles.[9]


The film's creators said the primary audience for Edge of the Knife is the population of Haida Gwaii, where the film may be a teaching tool and time capsule for the language.[4][7] It was first shown on Haida Gwaii on the 1–2 September 2018 weekend. "If the Toronto Sun says they don't like it," Gwaai Edenshaw said, "I can live with that. But if [my aunt] is coming at me, well, then I'll be running scared."[22][nb 6]

Edge of the Knife made its public premiere on 7 September at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).[23] It was noted as one of several indigenous-film premieres at TIFF along with Falls Around Her and The Grizzlies.[24][25] It was also shown on 3 and 5 October at the Vancouver International Film Festival[5] and will close the imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival on 21 October.[26][27] Edge of the Knife will be distributed by Isuma[26] and is expected in theaters later that year.[19]

A possibility for Edge of the Knife is using it to teach the language to young Haida people with a month-long "language module", Sandercock wrote in 2018. She added that some of the cast and crew, motivated by their work on Edge of the Knife, had begun receiving new roles and training others to make movies under the Haida production company Niijang Xyaalas.[2] With grant funding, Sandercock will research the film's impact through 2021.[5]

Critical reception[edit]

Radheyan Simonpillai of the Toronto newspaper Now wrote, "The preservation act challenges the cast to wrap their tongues around words they don't know. But their emotional performances overcome in a film stacked with stunning imagery, where the natural and mythical get tangled. Edge Of The Knife begins by mourning for a lost future. But in telling this story it finds hope yet."'[28] The Vancouver Observer's Volkmar Richter wrote "the film is gripping, exciting and visually stunning"—it is "high drama and very modern in both pace and look".[29] The Georgia Straight's Adrian Mack wrote that lead actor Tyler York's "commitment to the role is hair-raising".[30]

Edge of the Knife won best British Columbian film and best Canadian film at the VIFF British Columbia Spotlight event on October 6.[31]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

Explanatory notes

  1. ^ The film is sometimes called The Edge of the Knife.
  2. ^ Some actors, such as dancer Curtis Brown, went to the language training even though they had no lines in the film. "Just to be there to learn it myself personally and take it all in was pretty incredible," Brown said.[7]
  3. ^ Of the few crew members with professional experience, some had worked on White Fang (1991), 300 (2006), the Lord of the Rings series (2001–03), and Deadpool (2016).[17] Executive producer Zacharias Kunuk directed the critically acclaimed film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).[4]
  4. ^ Haida tattoo artists Corey Bulpitt and Kwiaahwah Jones spent days on tattoos for some actors. "I always wanted to bring back traditionally hand-poked Haida chest tattoos, but I never had the chance and nobody asked me for one," Bulpitt said. "When I finally got this opportunity it was a fulfillment of a dream. These were the first full Haida chest pieces to be hand poked in a hundred years."[18]
  5. ^ Of the 58 people who worked on the film, 47 were indigenous (including 41 Haida).[7]
  6. ^ "I have confidence that it will be interesting to a broad audience," Gwaai Edenshaw said, "but the ones that will be coming back at me if we don't do it right will be our aunties. So that's the audience that I really have to make sure that we do good by."[19]


  1. ^ "Edge of the Knife". Toronto International Film Festival. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  2. ^ a b c d e f Sandercock, Leonie (5 September 2018). "TIFF premiere: Sgaawaay K'uuna, the first feature film about the Haida people". The Conversation. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Porter, Catherine (11 June 2017). "Reviving a Lost Language of Canada Through Film". The New York Times. Archived from the original on 13 November 2017. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  4. ^ a b c d e f Stewart, Briar (2 November 2017). "Haida goes Hollywood: Making a film — and trying to save a language". CBC.ca. Archived from the original on 20 April 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  5. ^ a b c Takeuchi, Craig (5 September 2018). "SGaawaay K'uuna: world's first Haida-language feature film to be at Vancouver International Film Festival". The Georgia Straight. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  6. ^ a b c d Di Staulo, Cara (30 June 2016). "Edge of the Knife" (PDF). Isuma. Archived (PDF) from the original on 23 July 2018. Retrieved 19 January 2018.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Lederman, Marsha (22 June 2017). "Making history on Haida Gwaii". The Globe and Mail. Archived from the original on 16 July 2017. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  8. ^ a b Takeuchi, Craig (14 August 2017). "Telefilm Canada to fund three B.C. films among 11 Indigenous productions". The Georgia Straight. Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
  9. ^ a b c "Lunch with Edge of the Knife co-director Gwaai Edenshaw". BCBusiness. Canada Wide Media. 28 May 2018. Archived from the original on 23 July 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  10. ^ Russell, Anne (29 March 2018). "Indigenous Film Series features award-winning Tsilhqot'in director Helen Haig-Brown". UFV Today. University of the Fraser Valley. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  11. ^ Hudson, Andrew (10 May 2018). "Athlii Gwaii Legacy Trust nears relaunch". Haida Gwaii Observer. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  12. ^ a b Gilpin, Emilee (25 April 2018). "The Haida language is here to stay". National Observer. Archived from the original on 5 June 2018. Retrieved 2 June 2018.
  13. ^ Johnson, Rhiannon (29 August 2018). "TIFF 2018: CBC Indigenous lists 6 films to watch". CBC.ca. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  14. ^ Griwkowsky, Fish (16 December 2017). "Haida-based CBC pilot The Girl Who Talks to the Moon about fun and respect". Edmonton Journal. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  15. ^ "Edge of the Knife: Three to the power of all". Council of the Haida Nation. 2 May 2017. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  16. ^ a b Richard, Graham (7 July 2017). ""Breath is where it all starts"". Council of the Haida Nation. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  17. ^ a b c d Richard, Graham (3 August 2017). ""That's a wrap!"". Council of the Haida Nation. Archived from the original on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  18. ^ a b Richard, Graham (7 June 2017). "Edge of the knife: Kidnanang (Tattooing)". Council of the Haida Nation. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  19. ^ a b c Zeidler, Marsye (15 January 2017). "Inuit film producers partner with Haida for first-of-its-kind feature". CBC.ca. Archived from the original on 16 April 2018. Retrieved 11 May 2018.
  20. ^ Pett, Shaun (26 August 2017). "Canada's Haida Gwaii archipelago: kayaking to the edge of the world". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 4 May 2018. Retrieved 11 April 2018.
  21. ^ Mitchell, Wendy (31 March 2018). "Nine upcoming indigenous films to look out for". Screen Daily. Archived from the original on 12 June 2018. Retrieved 9 June 2018.
  22. ^ Sciarpelletti, Laura (2 September 2018). "First Haida-language feature film premieres on home turf before TIFF". CBC.ca. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  23. ^ Austen, Ian (31 August 2018). "A Tumultuous Week for Justin Trudeau: The Canada Letter". The New York Times. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  24. ^ Hertz, Barry (1 August 2018). "Familiar festival names rule TIFF's 2018 Canadian lineup". The Globe and Mail. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  25. ^ "TIFF 2018: Xavier Dolan's star-studded English-language debut joins Canadian lineup". CBC.ca. 1 August 2018. Retrieved 11 August 2018.
  26. ^ a b "Sgaawaay K'uuna: Edge of the Knife". imagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival. Archived from the original on 13 May 2018. Retrieved 12 May 2018.
  27. ^ "Falls Around Her opens imagineNATIVE". Northern Stars. 28 August 2018. Retrieved 3 September 2018.
  28. ^ Simonpillai, Radheyan (6 September 2018). "TIFF review: Edge Of The Knife". Now. Retrieved 8 September 2018.
  29. ^ Richter, Volkmar (October 3, 2018). "More VIFF recommendations: a Haida tale, sailing with refugees and a cheeky Bible story". The Vancouver Observer. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
  30. ^ Mack, Adrian (September 27, 2018). "Haida legend comes to life in Edge of the Knife". The Georgia Straight. Retrieved October 8, 2018.
  31. ^ Mack, Adrian (October 6, 2018). "Haida-language feature Edge of the Knife wins VIFF's top B.C. Spotlight awards". The Georgia Straight. Retrieved October 8, 2018.

External links[edit]