Scene from SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) | Image source: tiff.net
In SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), we are treated to a passionate and transformative performance from newcomer Tyler York, who portrays a Haida man that turns into the Gaagiixid- the wild man. The film premiered at TIFF in September and will have a special screening for the closing gala at imagineNATIVE this year on October 21, 2018.
The film starts out with an eerie tone, focused on a mask burning in a fire with a man narrating, “a fire calls you into the forest….no matter how long you run, you cannot catch the fire. You run and run until your mind is sick and the spirits take you over.” We then cut to the 19th century Haida Gwaii, where two noble families gather together to prepare food for the winter months on their traditional lands. Conflict arises from two men from each of the families, Adiits’ii and Kwa (William Russ). In an unforeseen accident, Kwa’s son Gaas drowns while on a fishing trip with Adiits’ii, who seemingly disappears.
The script is based on traditional stories that have been told in Haida society since time immemorial with Gwaai Edenshaw and Helen Haig-Brown in the co-directors chair. SGaawaay K’uuna is the first feature film spoken entirely in the Haida language and using Haida actors, a process inspired Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Kunuk, who produced the film, specializes in films that seek to promote and preserve Indigenous languages and cultures. His films often showcase the beauty of the land with visually stunning backdrops, giving audiences an authentic look at what life was like for our ancestors through an Indigenous lens.
I’m not too familiar with the Haida language, but the entire cast did an incredibly believable job with the script. York’s committed performance takes centre stage for most of the film as he goes from a grieving family member to full-on ‘crazy’, making me gasp at times during his transition. There was great chemistry between Russ and York, with times where they alluded to Gaas being Adiits’ii’s son instead of Kwa’s, adding layers to the plot and indicating a complex history between the families.
Jonathan Frantz does beautiful work as director of photography. We get to see stunning long shots of Haida Gwaii, showing off the main character – Mother Earth’s lush beauty. Overall SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife) pushes boundaries for Indigenous cinema as it comes together neatly with intuitive acting and visually stunning cinematography, making me look forward to more traditional stories being shared cinematically in the future.