2018 | Dir. Helen Haig-Brown/Gwaai Edenshaw | 100 minutes
Reviewed by Skye Thorleifson
Edge of the Knife (SGaawaay K’uuna) is a success in two significant ways. Historically, it is the first feature film to be spoken entirely in Haida, an endangered language with only 24 native speakers. This follows in the tradition of the film’s executive producer Zacharias Kunuk, whose directorial feature Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner was also the first Inuktitut film. Like Kunuk’s film, however, Edge of the Knife is more than just a tool for preservation and education. Artistically, it is a beautifully filmed and consistently unnerving horror-laced drama that observes the internal and external turmoil of guilt within the structure of a traditional Haida folktale.
The film centers on two families on the Haida Gwaii archipelago who come together every summer to fish and stock up for the winter. Among these are the couple Kwa and Hlaaya and their young son Gaas. Gaas’ presence on the fishing trip is greatly anticipated by the noble Adiits’ii, who loves the boy like his own son. However, disaster strikes when during a stormy fishing trip that Adiits’ii initiated, Gaas dies in an accident. After escaping the water and fleeing into the forest, the guilt-ridden Adiits’ii seeks refuge away from his friends, only to have his pain overwhelm him, leaving him vulnerable to the spirits of the island. Thus, the man eventually takes on the grim form of Gaagiixiid, the legendary Haida wild man.
Most actors in the film did not speak the Haida language prior to their casting, but learned their lines by training with a few of the remaining elders who speak it fluently. Some of those elders – including Delores Churchill, who helped translate the film’s script – also appear onscreen providing improvised dialogue. Seeing these brief conversations, wherein the elders trade jokes and reminisce about work songs, feels truly special. It also provides a welcome break in tension in this otherwise stark narrative.
Dramatically, the film really showcases its strengths when dialogue is sparse, especially when it allows us to experience the insane heights of Tyler York’s committed and grisly performance as Adiits’ii. It is simultaneously tragic and riveting to see York transform from the lively and caring man in the film’s opening sequences to the twisted, animalistic entity that is Gaagiixiid. The combination of his physicality, the disturbing make-up, and the filmmaker’s subversion of horror filmmaking techniques is utterly visceral.
Horror fans will likely draw parallels between the imagery of Gaagiixiid in this film and Hollywood depictions of demonic possession. However, directors Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown implement the visual and sonic tropes from those films not to shock or surprise, but to immerse the audience in Adiits’ii’s perspective as he grows wilder and more tortured. The erratic editing and especially the sound design go a long way in simulating these struggles. All the while, York’s eyes continue to hint at the subtle emotional pain he feels in his few moments of stillness and paranoia.
As much as the film focuses on Adiits’ii’s struggles with guilt, it does equal justice to the more nuanced struggles of the family and friends that he leaves behind. William Russ is very powerful as the grieving Kwa. His feelings of parental failure manifest in different ways throughout the film. It’s a poignant reminder of the psychological barriers that fathers – and men in general – often put up to hide their vulnerability, even in the presence of loved ones. These clashing portrayals of Adiits’ii and Kwa’s respective anguish create an intense balance, building the uncertainty of their conflict all the way to the haunting final 20 minutes.
Edge of the Knife creates a rich, uneasy atmosphere that resonates long after it’s finished, with the gorgeous landscapes offsetting its somber drama. In using the Haida language to present that drama, the artists deserve the highest credit for putting in the work to preserve a significant and endangered part of their heritage. For those simply looking to experience the story, however, the film has everything that you could hope for. The thrilling dynamic between its main characters is something to witness, even when they share so little screen time. The film is grotesque, tragic, and absolutely worth experiencing.