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Despite the risk in shooting in a language very few can speak, Edge of the Knife filmmakers are focused on their Haida audiences

The cast of Edge of the Knife rehearse their lines in Hiellen, Haida Gwaii, B.C., in April. The film, which has been in the works since 2015, is the first feature film to be made in the Haida language.

If making a feature film in a language that only a handful of people speak is a box- office risk, the team behind Edge of the Knife really does not care. Currently in production on Haida Gwaii, Edge of the Knife is being shot in Haida – a language that fewer than 20 people speak fluently. This comes with many challenges in production and post-production, with actors who aren't conversant in the language performing in a film directed by non-Haida speakers. But the filmmakers are focused on aspirations other than ticket sales and critical reviews, the traditional measures of success.

"That's from the beginning something we've [said]: Make it for your own people and for Haida audiences, and if it goes well down south, then great. But the first judge of success is how it's received here," Jonathan Frantz, the lead producer and director of photography, says during a casual lunchtime production meeting at Bud's Bar & Grill in Masset on Haida Gwaii.

"And that's who I'm answerable to," adds co-director, co-writer and artistic director Gwaai Edenshaw. "I've got to face my aunties when this is all said and done. So that will be the primary measure.

"That said, in our humble opinion, we think it will be a beautiful movie."

Edenshaw, 40, is the son of famed Haida leader, activist and artist Guujaaw. But, as with most others working on the film, Edenshaw does not speak the language. This is his first film. His co-director, Helen Haig-Brown, doesn't speak the language either; she is Tsilqot'in. Frantz, 42, doesn't speak Haida. He works for Kingulliit Productions in Igloolik, Nunavut – the company behind the 2001 hit Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner. Zacharias Kunuk, who directed Atanarjuat, is an executive producer for Edge of the Knife, and Kingulliit has contributed funding. The Council of the Haida Nation, the Canada Media Fund and the B.C. and federal tax credit programs are also major supporters.

Director Gwaai Edenshaw (right) on set in the ancient village of Yan, Haida Gwaii.

The co-writers were Graham Richards, Jaalen Edenshaw (Gwaai's brother) and Leonie Sandercock. The official editors/advisers are Harold Yeltatzie and Diane Brown, who is fluent.

And the Edenshaws consulted with numerous elders and knowledgeable people throughout the project.

It is built around the story of Gaagiixid, the Haida wild man, a classic Haida story. The character Addiits'ii survives a traumatic experience and transforms into the wild man after escaping to the forest and shores of Haida Gwaii for a year, where he sleeps at the base of a large tree, before he can reconcile with his community.

The story is an allegory for any trials a human might be put through – mental health, addiction, anything that makes you lose your balance and pushes you over the edge. The title comes from a Haida proverb that the world is as sharp as the edge of a knife.

It is a historic project: the first feature film to be made in the Haida language. Last week, after 14 days of shooting, Edenshaw and Frantz headed out to the Golden Spruce Trail, west of Port Clements, to tromp around on a woodsy location scout looking for the tree that would become Gaagiixid's forest den. As they considered several candidates – red cedar, spruce, hemlock – the pair explained that it will be a key sequence in the film: when Gaagiixid (Tyler York) removes himself from society and makes a new home for himself in a tree.

During the scout through the fairly remote area – it has no cell service, for instance – they discussed how they would disguise the hiking trail and any evidence the film is being shot in the 21st century. The story is set in the 1800s, which means no deer – or evidence thereof – (deer had not yet been introduced to the island) and no evidence of logging either (ditto).

Much of the shooting has been done in remote Yan – where production crews had to pay close attention to the tides because people and equipment were to be boated in and out. The crew has also dealt with heavy rain – no surprise on Haida Gwaii, but still not ideal for cameras or sound equipment. Gale-force winds at the beginning of the shoot made it impossible for elders to be on-set. But, elements and all, Haida Gwaii was the only possible location for the shoot.

Lead actor Tyler York (left) runs through lines during a rehearsal.

"You wouldn't have the same energy if you're in a studio in Vancouver. It's the opposite of the foundation and fundamental aspects of the project," Frantz says.

The film has been in the works since 2015. The script has been translated into three dialects of Haida – Masset,Skidegate and Alaskan. There are no fluent speakers under the age of 60 on Haida Gwaii and efforts are under way to preserve the language before they die. Making a film in Haida is a statement on the importance of that work.

A team of translators worked on the project, as did the Skidegate Haida Immersion Program.

The cast and crew of about 60 include 47 Indigenous people, 41 of whom are Haida. Casting was done on-island, and a language boot camp led by elders with script rehearsal was held earlier this spring.

Dancer Curtis Brown, 29, attended the boot camp – even though he has no lines in the film. "Just to be there to learn it myself personally and take it all in was pretty incredible," he says, dropping in for lunch at Bud's.

The language includes many complex sounds that don't appear in English. People who auditioned were tested to make sure they could make the sounds.

"Our actors are learning as they go," Edenshaw says. The language issue makes on-the-fly script changes more challenging – "we're throwing them curve balls," he says. But the learning curve has been remarkable. "It's really kind of mind blowing … the sensitivity and nuance that they bring to their delivery of lines."

Edenshaw believes this has less to do with the crash course they all had in the language – and acting in general – and more to do with Haida history.

"Even though it's in a bygone era, it's still all these people's lived experience. So they are able to draw on the richness of their own personal experience, and I think they're really able to see themselves in the story. That has its own challenges, right? Because it draws up deep emotion for them and we have to re-ground, we have to come back to ourselves at the end of the day," Edenshaw says. "But I couldn't imagine so-called professionals doing a better performance than what we're getting."

"You can see thousands of years of history coming through the actors and the emotion," Frantz adds. "It's real, it's not performance-based. It's them tapping into a place that only Haida could tap into on a location that draws that out because the history is there. I don't think it would be possible with non-Haida actors."

Counselling and guidance on-set have been offered to help deal with the issues brought up by the script and the return to the language. Elders are on-set to provide not just linguistic but cultural guidance. "I'm the boss unless the elders say otherwise," Edenshaw says.

In determining priorities for the project, authenticity was high on the list. That comes through in language, story, the set and costume design – right down to authentic Haida chest tattooing for the performers done by artists Corey Bulpitt and Kwiaahwah Jones.

Cast member Russell Davis gets a traditional tattoo by artist Cory Bulpitt (right).

About $1-million of the film's $1.8-million budget is expected to remain in Haida pockets. And the filmmakers point to an artistic legacy too: They will leave equipment behind – including a camera and a computer – and, they hope, knowledge. They see this as a pilot project of a potential sustained industry that could be an economic alternative to the resource industry.

"Instead of extracting fish or logs, there's still impact, but it's fairly benign," Frantz says. "You're paying people to learn the language, to showcase their culture, hiring local people and creating a different form of Haida art."

Shooting is scheduled to wrap on July 2. The filmmakers plan to submit the film to the Toronto International Film Festival for 2018. But there is no question about where it will have its first public screening: Haida Gwaii, of course.