Before entering the theatre to watch Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, I heard buzz for the type of Canadian movie that rarely gets excitable word-of-mouth. But this was different: an Indigenous-focused film that was also a zombie thriller.
The story begins with a Mi’kmaw fisherman who lands a catch that isn’t as dead as he thought, and then the gore-splattering is off to the races. The title references the colonial measurement of how much Indigenous blood a person must have to qualify as such – an act that still comes into play in various Indigenous communities across Canada. Interestingly, this history wasn’t spelled out in Barnaby’s film. Which meant that, for Indigenous audience members like myself, the movie was made for us to be on the inside, for once.
The premise of Blood Quantum overtly and macabrely flipped the script on Canada’s colonialism: While a zombie virus spread across the world, the residents of a small Mi’kmaq reserve are immune, and they must protect their reserve from the white refugees trying to enter. It was an audacious conceit, but coming from the mind of writer-director Barnaby, it was expertly developed into an entertaining and bloody ride. Considering the horror genre is still mired in “Indian burial ground” tropes, it was truly thrilling to see a filmmaker make their mark in such an authentically Indigenous way.
Blood Quantum wound up being Barnaby’s last film. The filmmaker died this week at the age of 46, after a year-long battle with cancer. His singular voice, bringing sci-fi and horror to Indigenous stories, will be deeply missed. And I can’t be the only left one wondering what stories he didn’t get to tell.
Barnaby was born and raised in Listuguj, the real-life version of the fictionalized Red Crow reserve that was the setting of his films. He leaves his wife, Sarah Del Seronde, and a son, Miles.
I have followed Barnaby on Twitter for years, where he was brutally honest, extremely funny, and completely unafraid to be critical of the industry he worked in and the media that covered it. I like to think that his Twitter feed was a window into the man, particularly his many missives about his love of cinema, and in particular horror.
Talking to filmmaker and actor Elle-Maija Tailfeathers about him, it seems pretty close to the truth.
“He was a really complicated person in a lot of ways, because he was very real, raw and unapologetic in his work, vision and his voice,” she says. “He was righteously angry for a lot of reasons … and he was very political. He was also so funny, and you see that in all of his work.”
Barnaby’s contributions to the arts had a huge impact on Indigenous creatives, and on the Canadian film scene overall.
Later one of the stars of Blood Quantum, Tailfeathers tells me that as an emerging filmmaker, seeing Rhymes for Young Ghouls at imagineNATIVE film festival was transformative.
“I just remember walking out of the theatre, feeling this sort of deep, visceral reaction to the film, not only because of his vision and the artistry in his execution of that vision, but also knowing that that film would fundamentally change the landscape of Indigenous cinema. Nothing would ever be the same again after that film. And I think that’s true.”
The filmmaker received myriad awards and nominations, through the Canadian Screen Awards, Genie Awards, imagineNATIVE, Vancouver International Film Festival and TIFF.
The appreciation of his work even extended beyond borders. This past July, he was brought to the Museum of Modern Art in New York for the film series Horror: Messaging the Monstrous, where his first feature, 2013′s Rhymes for Young Ghouls, and his 2007 short film Colony screened alongside Blood Quantum. At the time of the series’ announcement, I was thrilled that he was being recognized in that storied institution. Thinking back now, it is even more meaningful that he lived to see the moment.
I’m truly thankful that Barnaby was able to create what he did with the time that he had. He has left us with the many indelible images he put to screen, which include Devery Jacobs in Rhymes for Young Ghouls, in a gas mask and hooded leather jacket, with her hair in braids, ready to take down a corrupt Indian agent in the 1970s-set film. Or Blood Quantum’s stare-down between Kiowa Gordon’s troubled character Lysol and a zombie in a helmet, a mirror of the real-life photograph of a Mohawk protester and a member of the Canadian military.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls was wildly ahead of its time, depicting a deadly and depraved version of Canadian residential schools that most Canadians weren’t aware of yet.
Barnaby fought hard to cast Jacobs in her breakout role in Rhymes, to which the actress credited her entire career in a statement upon Barnaby’s death.
“Jeff had an ineffable impact on my life. I wouldn’t be an actor today, if it weren’t for Jeff. Having nearly given up on this career, he not only took a chance on me, but fought relentlessly to cast me in his debut feature, my first leading role,” she said. “We were bound and forever changed from that experience, and formed a special connection of understanding, respect and long-standing friendship.”
His feelings for all his collaborators were mutual. In a tweet from July, he wrote: “Bless you artists, you writers, painters, pencillors, filmmakers, photographers, carvers, beaders, musicians and everything in-between. Thank you for thinking outside the box and turning grief into beauty. You’ve saved me a million times over.” Thank you, Jeff.
Special to The Globe and Mail