British Columbia

Haida goes Hollywood: Making a film — and trying to save a language

The first feature-length Haida film, which was shot over the summer at Haida Gwaii locations, is being edited and will be shown at festivals when it's complete.

The Edge of the Knife is the 1st feature-length film made using Haida dialects

The $1.8 million film was shot during the summer on Haida Gwaii after local actors went through intensive language training. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

As he stood in the middle of the lush rainforest of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia, Brandon Kallio stared straight ahead, repeating words over and over again.

Among those he practised was the word "Gaagiid," which means Wildman in the Haida language. 

Back in June, the 43 year-old commercial fisherman was focused on getting into character. Traditional Haida tattoos poked through the cedar cape he was wearing, which rustled each time he moved.

Around him stood cameras, sound technicians and a voice coach, who urged him to try saying the words as if he were angry, and then again, in concerned voice. 

When the director asked for quiet on the set, Kallio took a deep breath and delivered lines from a language he doesn't know.

Brandon Kallio is one of the 22 cast members starring in the first feature-length Haida film. (Glen Kuglestadt/CBC)

"It was kind of nerve-wracking," he admitted after the filming.

"To be involved in something like this was pretty remarkable."

Kallio was one of the 22 actors in the film The Edge of the Knife. Most in the cast have never acted before. Nor do they speak Haida, a gravely endangered indigenous language that is now getting exposure on the big screen in an attempt to help revive it.

"We have less than one per cent of our population that are fluent speakers, and most of those are between the ages of 75 and 95," said Dana Moraes, a production manager for the film and a community planner.

Moraes said the idea of producing the first feature-length Haida film came when community organizers were looking for ways to encourage more residents to learn the local language.

Dana Moraes says the idea for a Haida film started four years ago, when officials were working on developing a community plan for the village of Skidegate. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

While Haida is now taught in schools, for decades children were actively discouraged from learning their traditional tongue — which is why there is a rapidly dwindling number of fluent speakers. Today, fewer than 20 people speak the language.

"We have had a really bad history with education and residential schools and having our language taken from us, and it is has been a real fight … to try and want to take that back," Moraes said."

Feature-length

The film is inspired by a traditional Haida legend about a man who becomes stranded on an island after being washed up at sea. He transforms into the character Gaagiid, or Wildman.

Its $1.8 million budget is funded by the Haida Nation, the Skidegate and Old Massett band councils as well as the Canadian Media Fund. It's being produced in partnership with Kinguliit Productions, the Inuit company behind Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, a critically acclaimed film that was the first movie to be made entirely in Inuktitut. Its director, Zacharias Kunuk, is an executive producer of the Haida movie.

The script for the film was translated to included the various Haida dialects. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

In June 2016, a year before filming began on Haida Gwaii, auditions were held to find local residents interested in acting. Kallio heard about the tryouts on Facebook and brought along his four young children, as well as his wife, Adeana Young, 32.

"I wasn't really into doing it," she admitted, adding that it was her husband who had the Hollywood ambitions.

"But I am really glad that he encouraged me to audition."

In the end, the whole family were given roles and then handed the script in Haida, a particularly daunting prospect for Kallio. His real-life Haida vocabulary was limited to the few words he overheard his children say while they did their homework after school.

Brandon Kallio and his wife Adeana Young both got roles in The Edge of the Knife, the first feature-length Haida film. (Submitted/Adeana Young)

As a child, Kallio was adopted and raised "off-island" on British Columbia's mainland. He had no real exposure to his culture or language, and he believes that void contributed to struggles with alcohol and substance abuse.

His life changed when he moved back to the Haida Gwaii archipelago as an adult, and was thrilled by the chance to be part of a film and at the same time learn some Haida.

"It's an important step in the right direction, learning of the language and sharing it with future generations," he said.

Crash course in Haida

Before filming began, all of the actors were taken to a remote camp on the island for a two-week language boot camp, where there was intense cramming. Elders were brought to help with pronunciation.

Haida has been described as a notoriously hard language to learn because there are sounds made in the different dialects that don't exist in any other language. Through the constant repetition, Kallio gradually became more comfortable with his lines.

"It opened my eyes to think that there's hope that even older guys can start to learn this stuff, and that's a big thing."

Filming took place in July with many of the scenes shot at Yan, the site of an ancient Haida village on the northeast coast. The remote location meant the production team had to take into account the changing tides when it came to scheduling the shoots.

Traditonal Haida carvers arrive ahead of a ceremonial Totem Pole raising. While Haida art has made a resurgence, the Haida language is endangered and fewer than 20 people speak it fluently. (Glen Kugelstadt/CBC)

The entire cast and crew camped out on site, which added to the whole experience for Young, because not only was she not used to being on a movie set, but she isn't a camper.

"I learned to enjoy it," she said.

The film is now in editing, and while it will be shown at festivals when it's complete, the movie's primary audience will be on Haida Gwaii, where it will be a teaching tool and a visual record of a disappearing language.

Young hopes to one day become a fluent speaker. She remembers a warning she heard from her Haida teacher when she was in school about what happens when people lose their traditional language.

"Not long after the language is gone, the culture is gone, and this is scary, really scary."

About the Author

Briar Stewart is a senior reporter with CBC News. For more than a decade, she has been covering stories for television, radio and online. She is based in Vancouver and can be reached at briar.stewart@cbc.ca or on Twitter @briarstewart