This Director is Making Films in an Endangered Language


Tsilhqot’in filmmaker Helen Haig–Brown is not afraid of a challenge. She tackled deeply personal subject matter in her 2014 documentary My Legacy, which explores the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the director’s relationship with her mother, a survivor of the school system. She also made a beautiful and technically impressive sci–fi short film on a shoestring budget – ?E?anx (The Cave) was named one of Canada’s Top Ten Shorts of 2009 by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

Haig–Brown grew up in Vancouver and in the Yunesit’in community of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in Williams Lake, British Columbia. She inherited an interest in languages from her mother, a linguist who teaches Tsilhqot’in, while her father raised her on a diet of stories. After pursuing a political science degree for two years, she switched gears and graduated from Capilano University’s Indigenous Independent Digital Filmmaking program.

July 1, 2019
A portrait of the filmmaker Helen Haig-Brown, a Tsilhqot'in woman and the co-director of the film Edge of the Knife.

Helen Haig–Brown, Tsilhqot'in filmmaker.

But none of her past projects fully prepared Haig–Brown for her latest work, SGaawaay K’uuna (Edge of the Knife), which she co–directed with Haida filmmaker Gwaai Edenshaw. This might be one of the most difficult film projects ever undertaken: It is the first feature ever made in the endangered Haida language (spoken by fewer than 50 people in the world), starring a cast of non–actors, some of whom did not yet speak Haida.

The film, a supernatural thriller set on Haida Gwaii in the 19th century and based on the Haida legend of the Gaagiixiid, or “Wildman,” premiered at TIFF last year, was named the 2018 imagineNATIVE Sun Jury Prize winner, and received high praise from audiences and critics alike. But the making of the film is an epic story in itself.

When she first heard about the project, Haig–Brown had only recently moved to Haida Gwaii with her partner, who is Haida, and she didn’t think she had the right to work on the film. “I felt like I couldn’t do justice to a Haida story, a period piece, being so new to the land.” But her mind was changed when she learned she would be directing alongside the acclaimed Haida artist Gwaai Edenshaw. “I said, okay, I can imagine doing it this way. Gwaai can ensure that things are done right, and I can bring the technical directing skills.”

To ensure the performances would meet the Haida community’s expectations of authenticity and storytelling, the filmmakers held an intensive two–week language boot camp. The cast lived communally in a traditional longhouse, and actors were paired off with mentors to hone their lines and delivery.

The experience of seeing non–speakers begin to communicate was powerful for everyone, but especially for the 12 Haida speakers – some of whom had come from as far away as Alaska – who mentored cast members. “I remember their excitement when some of the young people started to deliver their lines with emotion,” says Haig–Brown. “I thought, whoa, this is way bigger than just telling a story. And we were all buoyed by that energy.”

Everything she learned while working on SGaawaay K’uuna – communal living and working, language regeneration and bringing history to life through the knowledge of elders – will inform the filmmaker’s approach as she takes on her next project, heading into production this year: A film about the Chilcotin War of 1864, told in the Tsilhqot’in language.