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Helen Haig-Brown: Filmmaker at the Edge of the World

The co-director of Edge of the Knife on the art of collaboration, her homes near and far, and what’s to come.

By Venta Rutkauskas

Edge of the Knife   promotional image by Franziska Barczyk

Edge of the Knife promotional image by Franziska Barczyk

Behind the lens, embedded in the screen, a film is spun with countless filaments. Its texture is fortified by stories, hands that carry or sew, voices that convey… and directors who are the skilled conjurers that raise spirits and translate them to the screen. Sometimes years in the making, a film breathes with the essence of the community that pulled together to shape it. This feels especially true for SGaawaay K’uunaa/Edge of the Knife, a work of art born out of the Haida Nation’s engagement with their stories and their community. The first Haida language feature film, it tells the tale of a man who runs away into the bush after committing a crime, and becomes Gaagiixid, the wild man. The film grew out of meetings with community planners from the University of British Columbia, allies who were guided by The Council of the Haida Nation to bring their stories to new life as a fictional film. Like the mythical people who emerged from the clam shell on the edge of Raven’s world, the Haida community members involved in this envisioning exercise released their dreams into the fertile grounds of a network prepared to support them.

Helen Haig-Brown was new to Haida Gwaii when the film’s story development took place.  A new mother living in new territory, Helen was happy to let their process unfold without her involvement.  In fact, she didn’t see that she had any role to play at all, as an outsider. One of the screenwriters, Jaalen Edenshaw, encouraged her to get involved in the meetings taking place, but young children are a handful, and her previous film, My Legacy, had really exhausted her. Legacy follows Helen as she explores the intimate ways in which the legacy of residential schools left their mark upon her and her family emotionally and spiritually. “That project knocked the teeth out of me. It was really difficult,” Helen pauses, then adds, “The gift My Legacy gave me was huge. The healing I went through was huge.”

Helen My Legacy.jpg

Still, the Haida film’s producers kept knocking on Helen’s door. When the script was finalized, Helen received a call from Jonathan Frantz, a producer with Kingulliit (formerly Isuma), and he asked her to meet him for coffee.  It was during that get together that Frantz asked Helen to direct the film.  “I told Jonathan, ‘This is a dream come true’”, Helen explains. “Working with Isuma, in the Indigenous film world, even the Canadian film world, they’re huge.” Isuma’s pioneering moment came when their 2001 film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner took the world by storm with its unique perspective, winning the Camera D’or at Cannes, Best Canadian Film at Toronto International Film Festival and seven Genie awards. Isuma, now Kingulliit, propose a philosophy of film-making that runs opposite to mainstream industry standards.  They stand for collaborative and community-based works, with an emphasis on Indigenous language and culture.  “Isuma are deeply rebellious by nature,” Helen affirms. Their instinct to push against the grain of the current industry’s film-making model is something Helen resonated with.

Helen is a Tsilhqot’in filmmaker, dedicated to telling stories for and about Indigenous audiences.  As a young woman, she moved from her home community of Yunesit’in to pursue a degree in Vancouver. It was here she awakened to the depth and weight of colonization, while the trauma of her people at home and across Canada began to sink in. “Just the amount of stories and realities of colonization that I was gaining an awareness of was horrendous for me,” Helen recounts. “You know it, you think you know it, but it’s more horrific than you can even imagine, and more calculated and ongoing.” Drawn to film as a communications medium while studying for her bachelor’s degree, Helen soon enrolled in film school, with the intention to emblazon the truth. “I wanted to create pieces that were catalysts for discussion, for shifting, healing and changing,” she says. Since then she has worked on projects as a cinematographer and written, directed and produced several films and TV series, including ?E?Anx/The Cave, Su Naa (My Big Brother) and Pelq'ilc, a series about the Secwepemc language.

Even with the successes she’s had, and the positive responses she gained from a film like My Legacy, Helen often faced disillusionment with the film industry and how she fit into it. “That project required a slow, gentle space, and massive support,” she explains. It’s something that rarely exists in a world of strict timelines and tight budgets, where these tangible priorities take precedent over the creative process and emotional engagement needed in a deeply personal project.

With Edge of the Knife, Helen could feel it would be different. For one, she would be a co-director with Gwaai Edenshaw, the Haida artist who was intimately involved on the project as a screenwriter.  Sharing the guiding role with Edenshaw was essential for Helen. “It wasn’t even possible for me to direct that film on my own,” she notes. Conscious of her presence in another Nation’s territory, she had to consider whether she had anything to contribute to the film, or whether she was taking up space where another local individual could have stepped in. In the end, she found that she could easily defer to Edenshaw on issues of story and vision. “The film very much felt like his to me,” Helen explains. She did learn, however, that it was important for her to speak up and share her perspective. “Initially, I was very hands off, learning how to be a support in this process. And I realized I needed to engage and have those hard conversations. To say, ‘This is what I think. This is what I think should go.’ And allow for those debates and discussions to take place.”

On location in the historic village of Yan, Helen with young cast members and co-director Gwaai Edenshaw (kneeling far right. Photo by Farah Nosh/Niijang Xyaalas

On location in the historic village of Yan, Helen with young cast members and co-director Gwaai Edenshaw (kneeling far right. Photo by Farah Nosh/Niijang Xyaalas

Another way in which Isuma/Kingulliit differ from the mainstream film industry is in their approach of diffusing the camera centred axis that most films revolve around. For years, Helen had become familiar with this way of working, even if it did provoke her to question it.  Moving towards a more fluid, unobtrusive way of capturing the scenes provided Helen some of her greatest challenges on the film.  “So much of a movie is intensively planned”, she explains. And while the camera rules on mainstream sets, this alternative philosophy aims to make the actors, often community members who’ve never acted before, act naturally and authentically, without the pressure of hitting exact marks or ‘finding the light’. As Helen describes it, setting up shots is less structured, there are more hand-held cameras that film very general blocking, and it can feel more arduous to capture what is needed for a storyline that cuts together well in editing.  “I did do a shot list before hand,” Helen admits. “And then I didn’t look at it the whole time shooting.” Helen watched as scenes that were initially set up one way rapidly morphed into something new, requiring her to think on her feet. “I realized that that is my job, to ensure it did cut together.” Part of this process was allowing for Edenshaw and the cast and crew to be fluid with story structure, lines of dialogue or new blocking. The other side of it meant trusting in her own ability to see and map the shots they needed in her mind, envisioning what needed to be covered and building the shot-list internally. Balancing the technical aspects needed to create a coherent story with the more open and intuitive style proved to be the hardest work and the biggest gift.  “In one breath,” Helen says, “It was incredibly freeing. And in another breath, it was really challenging.  I loved it.”

William Russ, who plays Kwa in the film, prepares to shoot, bracing for the elements that were ever present during filming. Photo by Farah Nosh/Niijang Xyaalas.

William Russ, who plays Kwa in the film, prepares to shoot, bracing for the elements that were ever present during filming. Photo by Farah Nosh/Niijang Xyaalas.

Response to the film has been overwhelming, drawing large audiences to openings, and critical acclaim at the Vancouver International Film Festival, where it won the best B.C. film, the best Canadian film and the audience award. The team is floored by the response, celebrating the impact it is having outside the community.  “Everyone’s quite clear on Edge of the Knife, it was made for the Haida people,” Helen adds.  Yet it has captured the attention of audiences elsewhere who understand what the film has accomplished. To immerse the cast in their language, a two-week long boot-camp paired speakers with the actors. Teaming them up with 12 of the current language keepers, six of whom are in the film, the cast learned the two Haida dialects featured in the film. Community members did all the weaving for costumes, others built a new longhouse. So much effort was made to tell this story authentically. Shot on location in the historical village of Yan, the crew spent six weeks living alongside the remnants of old longhouses and totem poles, intensely aware that their presence there could erode or damage the delicate remains. “Yan is a precious place,” Helen emphasizes. “We had strong boundaries of where we could walk and where we couldn’t.” The cast and crew of the film forged a strong bond to each other and the land during their stay. Throughout the shoot, Helen noticed those who were not involved in certain scenes harvesting regularly, cedar and spruce for weaving materials or octopus as bait for fishing.

Edge of the Knife   had a successful run at ImagineNative festival in Toronto. Photo credit ImagineNative/Michael Tjioe.

Edge of the Knife had a successful run at ImagineNative festival in Toronto. Photo credit ImagineNative/Michael Tjioe.

Now that the film is out, Helen is looking ahead to the future, making plans for her next project. “Edge of the Knife has changed my world.” She explains. “I am very impassioned again about the process of filmmaking.” She is directing this passion towards the story of the Chilcotin War, and what excites her about this journey forward is all the historical research she will do for pre-production and script development. Helen envisions a community-wide engagement to discover details like combat practices, gesture and intonation, how their homes were set up, all to build the context of the period piece. Unlike the Haida, who have an extensive archival collection to draw from, the Tsilhqot’in were not so willing to share their culture after the war and hanging of six Chiefs. “We weren’t hanging around with anthropologists,” Helen notes wryly. “But we still have a lot of that knowledge. Our archives are with our elders, so it’s about taking the time to record it.”

With funding already secured, Helen expects to be back on the Chilcotin Plateau throughout 2019. She’s learned from her work on Edge of the Knife, instilled with a new confidence that she can balance technical facets with an openness to creativity and impulse on set.  She’s not exactly taking on new subject matter, rather it is with new eyes that she sees it all unfolding. She also speaks to a growing understanding of how she will teach her culture as an older person, something her mother, who is a linguist, showed her. Helen’s dedication to language revitalization at home is rekindled, imagining the ways in which she will encourage her actors to learn the language with truthful emotion and pronunciation. “I’ve found myself being my mother’s daughter, connecting around language revitalization.”  And like Edge of the Knife, who’s foundation was built to support a sustainable and ongoing film industry on Haida Gwaii, Helen dreams about building that capacity in the Cariboo Chilcotin. Exciting times ahead…

For now, Helen heads to the deserted beaches of Haida Gwaii with her family everyday, rooting down on the ‘islands of the people’ at the edge of the world. Working on the ground-breaking feature film that the Haida dreamed into being gave to Helen a sense that she has something of value to contribute there. “It helped me see that I had a purpose or role here,” she remarks.  Edge of the Knife brings viewers in to experience the flash of spirit that the Haida language offers us. A proudly Tsilhqot’in storyteller, Helen’s collaboration on that film moves her towards the next phase in her career, when she will unveil that unique flash for her people, inviting us all in to a new world and mind state.      


 

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