A world-decimating zombie apocalypse has sprung forth, infecting the land’s inhabitants and rendering them undead. All, that is, except for its Indigenous peoples.
In writer-director Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore feature, Blood Quantum, an isolated Mi’kmaq reserve is the setting for an indisputable return to the zombie genre’s unmistakably political roots. Akin to Barnaby’s rich debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, it’s a premise that feels simultaneously fresh, yet long overdue in as much as even the idea of seeing such a pointed postcolonial reckoning onscreen feels at odds with what has so far constituted much of larger-budget narrative filmmaking in this country.
At $4.5-million, Blood Quantum boasts the largest-ever production budget for an Indigenous film in Canada, according to an imagineNATIVE report released last year, a milestone that is both celebratory and eye-opening. Barnaby’s second feature is a scrappy, if not punk, film that eschews respectability in favour of using the most satisfying (and, often, most violent) elements of genre to bring the realities of Indigenous experience to the screen.
After Blood Quantum’s premiere at TIFF this past September, The Globe and Mail sat down with Barnaby and actor Michael Greyeyes to discuss the film’s contextual history and radical use of genre, as well as issues of cultural translation among audiences.
Jeff, can you tell me about the way this film came to develop?
Barnaby: It had been percolating for about 12 years, but it really started to manifest just in the past couple of years. With this film, we were constantly surprised, and I dealt with that via working on the writing, editing and music. This is one of the hardest films I’ve ever done. It taxed me physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually. I feel like I barely got out of this one alive. We were constantly battling time and money constraints. I only found the opening quote two weeks ago, right before we finished the film.
That’s how it always works with opening quotes.
Barnaby: You know what the initial quote was supposed to be? It was supposed to be a definition of “blood quantum,” because nobody knew what that was. It’s frustrating as a Native filmmaker, dealing with what are intrinsically white concepts …
… And yet white audiences don’t know what these concepts are.
Barnaby: Nobody knows what “blood quantum” is, in the same way that, with Rhymes for Young Ghouls, no one knew what residential schools were.
I think that in choosing not to offer a definition, you’re releasing yourself from some of the burdens of translation. How do you feel about working on a project wherein the language and shared space of Indigeneity is only set in relief to itself?
Barnaby: I think you’re still going to get people who are lost in translation. A lot of people are not “getting” the film because they don’t know the contextual history underlying the ideas. That’s always the issue when you’re dealing with a non-Native audience; they’re not going to understand where you’re coming from. I think that when you’re the “first,” you’re always going to get the learning curve. It’s a history that you’re trying to reintroduce to a culture that’s deliberately tried to erase it. They don’t want to know what residential schools are because it’s a blight on their history; they don’t want to know about blood quantum. A lot of people think that Canada isn’t capable of being racist, so reintroducing these ideas back into the cultural lexicon is always going to be an uphill battle because nobody wants to face them. Nobody wants to know that they’re a part of that history.
Greyeyes: I think that one of the interesting things about working with an Indigenous filmmaker is that the relationships, because we are Indigenous, don’t require an educating space. Jeff understands context. He comes from the reserve. It was really refreshing not to have to talk to the filmmaker or the writer or the producer and have to angle to find a better mode of representation. That’s a battle that was already won when Jeff created the story. We were all breathing the same air, and what that allowed was for us to investigate more fully what this Mi’kmaq family was about. That allows me as an actor to concentrate on that which I do best, which is understanding relationships. With Jeff’s writing being so specific to his experience, his family, his community, I’m able to just simply immerse myself.
I think that most marginalized people are very used to that wondering, almost omnipresent feeling of “What’s it like to just ‘be’?” That nagging urge to somehow be responsible for your own representation, which is not only inherently oppressive, but also detracts from the work you’re trying to directly do. You can see the lightness of that existing outside of that feeling in the movie.
Greyeyes: Absolutely. It allows for deeper storytelling, better storytelling.
Do you see genre as a way to enable that reintroduction you [JB] spoke of?
Barnaby: I think that’s one of the reasons you have to dress these ideas up in entertainment. These ideas come through in a Trojan horse that allows people to engage. That’s your function as an artist; you take these horrific moments and hope to make them powerful. It was a deliberate choice to make a zombie film in the height of the zombie craze because that audience is there. Putting it in a form that’s hyperpopular hopefully reaches younger and broader audiences. I hope that people remember that the zombie was always a political animal, and I’m trying to bring that back to cinematic language.
Greyeyes I’ve been in a number of projects like this – sort of apocalyptic or postapocalyptic stories.
I was going to ask: Do you love genre or does genre just happen to you?
Greyeyes: It’s interesting, with my skin colour, my identity, my identifiable ethnicity, I find it easier to get work in genre.
It’s easier for us [Indigenous and racialized people] to be seen as fantastic.
Greyeyes: Yes, rather than for us to be seen “naturalistic.” If those are the rules, then I don’t want any part in them. With genre, the rules are broken.
I was surprised by how pointed the violence was in the film. It wasn’t gratuitous; it was very directed and almost organic. How do you feel about the way in which the film uses violence?
Greyeyes: Jeff uses violence in a very elevated way, in a very informed way, because he’s grown up with violence in his personal life and in his community. One of the things he asked actors auditioning for the roles was to watch Alanis Obomsawin’s Incident at Restigouche. One of his first experiences with the settler state was, as a boy, getting a rifle butt in the face when those people marched into our homes and into our community. I think that Jeff’s experience with violence has worked its way into all of his films. I feel it’s an area he tells stories about that come from a really profound place. He doesn’t shy away from how raw it is. It’s meant to make you feel uncomfortable, and it’s meant to make you think about where it’s coming from and who it impacts.
I want to ask about the character of Lysol. What was your intent behind his character?
Barnaby: I wanted to show a Native person who was definitively angry. I think that seems like a new concept in this day and age, that Native people could be angry. I wanted to show this vibrant, young, angry man and have almost a sense of righteousness to him. I knew he would be labelled as the villain, but if you start peeling back his motivations, is he? He has been shaped by loss and by anger. My wife keeps telling me, “That’s you. That’s you up there.” I grew up in the foster-care system. I have a significant amount of anger I am trying to get out through my work. I think if you’re a Native person living in this culture, at some point you can’t hold that anger anymore. It’s like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get sick. Lysol, for me, was a message directly pointed at a Native audience, and I hope that it’s cathartic for them that Lysol goes through these things so that they don’t have to.
I think he is a beautiful character. He speaks so much to the ways in which we, in our specificities, become shaped by the world we live in.
Barnaby: I hope that people get it. I hope that with articles like this, there are more people of colour and Indigenous people able to look at this film from their perspective and bridge that gap. A lot of the initial reactions are missing a whole layer of the meaning. Even the opening of the second act is an homage to a film that not a lot of people have seen, but an incident in recent Canadian history that everybody should know about. I hope it works. I think it will. I think one of the things about being a filmmaker so engrossed in the process is that you don’t know how to look at your own work anymore. It’s a very personal film, and I want people to understand it.
Greyeyes: What I’m excited by is this unsteadying of the ground [that’s happening with film right now], because inside unsteady places important work can get made. Indigenous stories need big stages.
Blood Quantum is available digitally on-demand starting April 28
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