Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown's stunning looking and emotionally rich film is the first feature to be told in Haida dialects
EDGE OF THE KNIFE (Gwaai Edenshaw, Helen Haig-Brown). Opens Friday (April 5). 100 minutes. Subtitled. See listing. Rating: NNNN
Tyler York delivers a powerful performance that goes from restless and raw to tragic and ferocious as the Gaagiixiid, or Wildman, from Haida legend.
His Adiits’ii, a somewhat reckless figure within his tribe, retreats into the forest, guilt-ridden over his responsibility in an incident that takes a child’s life. He becomes the feral being that haunts his lands and community in this 19th-century tale about an Indigenous tribe setting out to take care and heal one of its own.
York, along with his fellow cast mates and Gwaai Edenshaw (who co-directs alongside Helen Haig-Brown), is from the Haida Gwaii community in BC. The film’s headlining feat is that it’s the first to be told in Haida dialects, languages that reportedly fewer than 20 people still speak fluently.
The preservation act challenges the cast to wrap their tongues around words they don’t know. But their emotional performances overcome.
Edge Of The Knife comes stacked with stunning imagery embracing both the natural and spiritual world, not that the two are separate in the film’s distinct purview. This is a film that begins by mourning for a lost future. But in telling this story – in telling it this way – it finds hope.
Since this is a rare film made for and by the Indigenous community, I don’t think it’s out of turn to include those voices in this review. Here are edited and condensed excerpts from a previous conversation with filmmakers Shane Belcourt and Lisa Jackson, who weren’t involved in Edge Of The Knife.
Shane Belcourt, filmmaker (Tkaronto, Red Rover):
What I love about Edge Of The Knife the most is that it has nothing to do with you – you being the dominant, colonizing society. You’re not in the movie. No white cast! No gold! No saviour! No evil-doer! Nothing!
We are in our own community. In a period piece, we’re going to go into our own journey as human beings without you. That other stuff hovers around the story, but it’s not the thing people are dealing with. They’re dealing with their own lives, relationships and humanity within their own world view.
What if you have ups and downs? Are you supposed to feel like a victim? No, you have ups and downs because you’re a human being. That’s what was so profound and beautiful about Edge Of The Knife.
Lisa Jackson, filmmaker (Biidaaban: First Light, Indictment: The Crimes Of Shelley Chartier):
Edge Of The Knife was made in a very communal way. The story within it has someone who goes off the rails and becomes monstrous. And what happens? The community comes together and pulls him back into the fold. They don’t send him out to perish. That was an allegory for [the Haida] people today.
These stories and value systems are useful perspective to have in our concerning times. Community-based living, a sense of humility and care-taking for the rest of the world might be something we all want to reach out to do.