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When people picture native storytellers, some might, says film director Jeff Barnaby, conjure a group sitting around a campfire, speaking majestically among deers and raccoons. But where he grew up, on the Mi’qmaq reserve in Listuguj, Quebec, the tales were more akin to “Irish bar stories” — they brandished a rich history and were locally sourced, about people he knew. “When I saw that contrasted against what was going on in Hollywood films, I became aware of how different the presentation was of native people in films versus what I experienced in real life,” the First Nations filmmaker tells The Hollywood Reporter. “It was so stark.”
This conversation coincided with the release of Barnaby’s second feature, Blood Quantum, on Shudder, a streaming service dedicated to horror, thriller and supernatural titles. The film, depicting indigenous inhabitants on the Mi’qmaq reserve who are immune to a sweeping zombie plague, premiered in the Midnight Madness section of the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019. It stars Michael Greyeyes, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and hails from production company Prospector Films.
Barnaby says that he simply took characters that he grew up around and placed them in a familiar Western story. The film is set in 1981 — a year significant to the director as it was when his reserve was raided by the Quebec Provincial Police and Department of Fisheries — and alludes to the ongoing conflict between native and non-native people. “The zombies are metaphors for racism, consumerism, capitalism and colonialism, and all the ‘isms’ that came before,” the director says, adding that they also serve as a criticism of the dystopia of today’s landscape.
That dystopian feel and look of the film comes, in part, from medieval imagery and concentration camps. “For me, really what I wanted to do was speak to the idea that reservations were essentially the first concentration camps,” explains Barnaby. “To a certain extent, taking all the non-natives that survived the zombie apocalypse, hoarding them all in one place and telling them they can’t leave without permission, or face death, is in and of itself a critique on the whole reservation system and the idea that we as a culture in the 21st century needed to subject these people in order to get where we were going.”
Among his inspirations, Barnaby drew upon the work of documentary filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin (Incident at Restigouche) — one of the first prominent indigenous filmmakers in Canada — and the horror novels of Clive Barker and Stephen King. Having grown up in a low-income family, Barnaby recalls “losing” himself in artwork, poetry, painting, books and movies. His stepmom was a Miq’maq language teacher, so his love for incorporating Miq’maq into his stories came from her.
“I always knew that film could act as a spotlight on social issues, but for me it was integrating all the artwork that I was growing up on and applying it to a fictional world,” says Barnaby. “A lot of what I try to do is integrate Hollywood cinematic tropes that come out of horror, and almost use that as the proverbial white guide through native country.”
More than once during the call, Barnaby emphasizes how there is “a lot to unpack” with the film and the ideas that fueled it. There is so much, in fact, that the director points out at one stage that he has glossed over something crucial. From from age 4, he grew up in foster care, and as a result sometimes has trouble understanding family dynamics. “You see that play out a little bit in the film; it’s a love letter to the movies I grew up watching, but at the same time, you can see me wrestling with my history as a foster kid.”
One of the challenges with a film like Blood Quantum, Barnaby goes on to say, is that its concept and setting are not familiar to everyone. “I think when you’re a non-native writer and director, you can make a story about something like World War II and everybody knows what that is,” he says, alluding to the fact that his own cultural background is lesser-known.
While blood quantum laws refer to the American Federal policy of determining one’s indigenous heritage, Barnaby flipped the script in his film by having indigeneity determining immunity to the zombie plague. “I was trying to introduce the ideas to a non-native audience without alienating the native people that really appreciate and come to see my movies,” he says, adding that it’s a fine line to walk.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, film is immensely personal for Barnaby, who explains that he is fascinated by obsessive people who exhibit strong artistic visions, such as Werner Herzog and Francis Ford Coppola. One of his favorite films is Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), which uses “old-school filmmaking” methods and equipment such as Bolex cameras and forced perspective in place of computer generated imagery. “The way he shot that film was the way Fritz Lang shot Metropolis 80 years earlier or whatever it was.” (It was 65 years earlier.)
“Just the idea that you could lose yourself with these characters and forget about your life. For a foster kid growing up on a reserve, that mattered to me.” After a pause, Barnaby concludes that films saved his life. “I’m not even exaggerating, artwork saved my life,” he says. “Instead of falling into a ‘Why don’t my parents love me?’ pit of self-loathing, I worked it out on paper and onscreen. Stories give me an outlet to both decompress and to rage.”
As THR thanks Barnaby for sharing something so personal, he refutes the fact that it is even personal to begin with. “I have to be this way,” he explains matter-of-factly. “I’m not a person enamored with the business, I’m not looking to be famous or anything like that; I’m more interested in the craft. I think, when you’re dealing with an outfit like Hollywood films or filmmaking in general as a native person, you have to be driven because it becomes so daunting.”
Acknowledging that Blood Quantum — made with a small budget and limited resources — “wrecked [him] for a while,” Barnaby praises Shudder for supporting native cinema. “Kudos.”
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Sterling K. Brown