The powerhouse producers behind the iconic Inuit film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner are partnering with the Haida First Nation in B.C. to make a feature-length film made entirely in two Haida dialects.
Set in 19th century Haida Gwaii, The Edge of the Knife is a film three years in the making that tells the story of Gaagiixid/Gaagiid (the Wildman), a popular Haida transformation tale about a man who survives a disaster at sea.
"The Edge of the Knife is a story of survival and redemption, secrets and self-discovery, set against the backdrop of the tangled rainforest and storm-ravaged Haida Gwaii," according to the film's Facebook page.
The production will employ an all-Haida cast speaking the nation's two main dialects — which is no small feat considering the few fluent speakers who remain. Part of the production will involve teaching the actors the language.
"Most of the people that came to us, that was their primary interest in getting involved in the project is the language aspect," said Gwaai Edenshaw, one of the film's two co-directors.
"We have a dwindling number of speakers … but also on top of that we have a ton of people who are putting in serious legwork to revitalize our language and make sure that it doesn't die out."
Producer Jonathan Franz says the film's $1.8-million budget is supported by the Canadian Media Fund, the Haida First Nation, the Skidegate and Old Masset band councils and B.C. film tax credits.
Franz is working on the project on loan from Inuit company Kingulliit Productions, where he has worked since 2012 with film-maker Zacharias Kunuk, the producer behind films like Atanarjuat and The Journals of Knud Rasmussen.
Kunuk has signed on as the executive producer for The Knife's Edge.
In the 30 years since its inception, Kingulliit Productions has created a highly respected film sector in Northern Canada that tells and promotes the language and culture of the local Indigenous people.
Both Franz and Edenshaw say one of the aspects of the film they're most excited about is building the skills of a similar Indigenous film industry on Haida Gwaii.
"I like the prospect of opening a new window of storytelling for us, and seeing what comes out of that," Edenshaw said.
"That's what we're looking at is the potential if we take to this as a nation, the potential for it to grow into a full-fledged industry."
Sharing lessons learned
Franz says Kingulliit Productions has been looking into how it could share the lessons it has learned with other Indigenous communities so they can tell their own stories.
"I think foremost it's about doing things your own way," Franz said.
"Focusing on culture, language and authenticity. Zacharias doesn't try to make films for anybody other than his Inuit audience."
Edenshaw seems to have taken that advice to heart.
"I'm most concerned about sharing it with Haidas," he said of the film.
"I have confidence that it will be interesting to a broad audience, but the ones that will be coming back at me if we don't do it right will be our aunties. So that's the audience that I really have to make sure that we do good by."
Filming starts in May. The film is expected to be completed by the end of 2017 and out in theatres by 2018.