In the Land of the Headhunters: B.C.'s first feature film celebrates 100 years

The film was the first feature made with an entirely indigenous North American cast - and is the oldest existing feature film made in Canada.

1914 drama documentary was made in collaboration with Kwakwaka'wakw people of Vancouver Island

Wasp, Thunderbird and Grizzly Bear dancers perform in the bows of the three canoes as the groom's party approaches the village of the bride's father. Photograph by Edward Schwinke. IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS (1914). (Images courtesy of Milestone Films)

In the Land of the Headhunters, the first feature film made in B.C. — and the oldest existing feature film made in Canada — celebrates 100 years this Sunday.

The film was made in 1914 by Edward Curtis, an ethnologist and photographer, in collaboration with the Kwakwaka'wakw (formerly Kwakiutl) people of northern Vancouver Island.

The film was the first feature made with an entirely indigenous North American cast and mixed drama and documentary to record the traditions and rituals of the Kwakwaka'wakw people.

The guests enter Kenada's house through the Raven's open mouth. This concept of a door as a devouring mouth appears in Kwakwaka'wakw myths and was used by Curtis and the Kwakwaka'wakw set builders. IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS (1914). (Images courtesy of Milestone Films)

Film historian Colin Browne first saw the film 20 years ago.

"The idea of the film is that it takes place before any Europeans arrive. These are completely contemporary people in 1914, but they were making a costume drama as if it was 1770."

Bill Cranmer is the hereditary chief of the N'amgis First Nation. His great aunt and uncle were the stars of the film.

"Just to see what they looked like in 1914 was a really great feeling. Seeing the old people as they were, some of the scenes in the film brings us back to the stories told to us by our parents."

The wedding party in Kenada's house after going through the Raven's open mouth. IN THE LAND OF THE HEAD HUNTERS (1914). (Images courtesy of Milestone Films)

The film was unique in its collaboration. The Kwakwaka'wakw people made the costumes and a few helped out on set.

Despite tense race relations at the time, there was a strong partnership between director Edward Curtis and the people he filmed.

In the Land of the Headhunters screens at Vancouver's Pacific Cinematheque at 6.30 p.m. PT on both Friday, Dec. 5, and Saturday, Dec. 6.

A centennial screening will take place at 7 p.m. PT on Sunday, Dec. 7, at Vancouver's Vancity Theatre and will include a discussion about the film's storied history with Colin Browne and Bill Cranmer.

About the Author

Elaine Chau

Associate Producer for CBC Radio in Vancouver

Elaine Chau was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Montreal and Vancouver. She is the 2008 recipient of the CBC Radio Peter Gzowski internship, multiple RTDNA winner, and Gold Radio Winner in the Health/Medicine category at the 2011 New York Festivals for her series "AIDS: Then and Now".

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