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Canadian Indigenous filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, best known for his Rhymes For Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum movies, has passed away. He was 46 years old.
Barnaby, who was raised on the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj, died on Thursday in Montreal after a year-long battle with cancer, his family confirmed in a statement received by The Hollywood Reporter.
The filmmaker revolutionized Canadian indigenous filmmaking by using genre film tropes to discuss themes and issues impacting Canada’s embattled First Nation communities. That included injecting elements of magic realism, body horror and sci-fi into his Indigenous storylines.
After completing studies at Dawson College and later Concordia University’s cinema program in Montreal, Barnaby broke out in 2013 with his debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls. The film offered an indictment of Canada’s controversial Residential School system wrapped in a revenge story set on the fictional Red Crow reserve.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls launched the career of Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (Reservation Dogs, Echo), who remained a close friend of Barnaby.
“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 Rhymes for Young Ghouls, my first leading role. We were bound and forever changed from that experience, and formed a special connection of understanding, respect and longstanding friendship,” Jacobs said in a statement.
With his films labelled as Indigenous Futurism, Barnaby’s second feature, Blood Quantum (2019), took 12 years to make. It became a raucous zombie film as, besides being an ode to classic horror movies, it critiqued colonialism by portraying Indigenous peoples as immune to a zombie plague impacting everyone else. The film won six Canadian Screen Awards and was sold into 30 territories worldwide.
As a craftsman, Barnaby wrote, directed and edited all his films, starting with his first short film, From Cherry English. The 2004 film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
Other credits include The Colony (2007), which premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, File Under Miscellaneous (2010) and Etlinisigu’niet (Bleed Down), which was made for the National Film Board of Canada in 2015.
Canadian indie producer John Christou said Barnaby’s films played a key role in Canada and its settler peoples reconciling with Indigenous peoples in recent years, and also helped usher in a new generation of Black, Indigenous and people of colour creators moving to center stage in Canadian film.
“His mastery of the craft, his storytelling, his uncompromising vision, and his humanity, shine through his work. My greatest hope is that the next generation of Indigenous filmmakers will pick up the torch and honour his legacy by being equally uncompromising in the realization of their vision. The film industry has lost a visionary and unique voice, but more importantly, many of us have lost a friend,” Christou said in a statement.
Barnaby is survived by his wife Sarah Del Seronde and son Miles.
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