By Liam Lacey
Zacharias Kunuk, who directed the 2001 breakthrough Inuit drama Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, serves as an executive producer on this film, the first feature in the Haida language, spoken by only about twenty people. The film is based on a legend and set in the 19th century. The title, according to an interview with co-director, Gwaai Edenshaw, comes from a Haida saying that the world is as sharp as the edge of a knife and you have to be careful not to fall off one side or the other.
The story concerns two friends from different families — Adiits’ii and his best friend Kwa — who meet each summer on the seasonal fishing grounds. Kwa’s young son, Gaas idolizes his father’s friend, though Gaas’s mother worries about his influence.
After Adiits’ii’s recklessness causes the accidental death of Kwa’s son, the guilt-stricken man flees into the rainforest. Wracked with remorse, Adiit’sii hides in the forest over the winter where he transforms into a half-human wild man, known as Gaagiid or Gaagixiid. When everyone returns to their fishing ground the next summer, they hunt and capture their friend in an effort to exorcise his destructive spirit.
Immersed in the lushly verdant coastal areas and West Coast rainforest, Edge of the Knife will take most filmgoers into an unfamiliar space. Co-directed by artist-sculptor Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown, fluidly shot by Jonathan Frantz, the film’s primary purpose is to preserve the Haida language and customs, with recreated costumes, masks and dwellings.
These are fascinating by themselves, but the effect is more historical than re-enactment. The story belongs to a body of oral histories called K’aygang’nga, which take place in a realm where the natural and supernatural intersect. Without getting too reductive, we can recognize a somewhat familiar story about a bitter rift and forgiveness.
Though Edge of the Knife doesn’t possess the awe-inspiring sweep of Atanarjuat, it’s a welcome reminder that our collective storytelling heritage doesn’t stop with The Iliad, the Bible and Disney.
Edge of the Knife. Directed by Gwaii Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown. Starring Tyler York, Greg Brown, William Russ and Adeana Young. Opens April 5 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.