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Director Jeff Barnaby, who helped Indigenous filmmakers dream bigger, dies at 46

Within an Indigenous filmmaking community that's still growing into its newfound power, Mi'kmaq director Jeff Barnaby is already being called a visionary whose influence has yet to be fully understood in Canada or elsewhere.
Director Jeff Barnaby is pictured as he promotes the film "Blood Quantum" at the Toronto International Film Festival, in Toronto, Friday, Sept. 6, 2019. Barnaby, who helped shape modern Indigenous cinema with titles such as "Rhymes for Young Ghouls" and "Blood Quantum," has died at age 46 after a battle with cancer. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Chris Young

Within an Indigenous filmmaking community that's still growing into its newfound power, Mi'kmaq director Jeff Barnaby is already being called a visionary whose influence has yet to be fully understood in Canada or elsewhere.

For those who knew him best, his work was raw, unflinching and honest in a way few other filmmakers dared to be. When he died Thursday in Montreal at 46 after a yearlong battle with cancer, many pointed to a void that would be impossible to fill.

With only two feature-length films to his name — the drama "Rhymes for Young Ghouls" and zombie film "Blood Quantum" — Barnaby challenged notions of Indigenous cinema and its potential to draw mainstream audiences.

His films were urgent and contemporary indictments of Indigenous oppression in Canada, and heralded the arrival of an exciting new voice.

Actress and director Elle-Maija Tailfeathers remembers how a 2013 festival screening of "Rhymes" left her with a "visceral response" to his unflinching critique of the residential school system and ongoing colonial violence.

"I knew things were never going to be the same again," said Tailfeathers, who went on to star in "Blood Quantum."

"His work contributed to what we're seeing today, which is a beautiful renaissance of Indigenous cinema. He made it possible for so many of us to dream bigger."

Mohawk actor Kaniehtiio Horn, who was cast in Barnaby's 2007 short film "The Colony," predicted that people will study Barnaby's small yet singular body of work for years to come.

"I don't think he can be replaced," said Horn, who has since appeared in "Letterkenny" and the upcoming feature "Alice, Darling."

"He really taught people to do it your own way and never compromise."

Raised on the Listuguj Reserve in Quebec, Barnaby moved to Montreal to attend Dawson College and later enrol in film at Concordia University.

His short but impactful career began with several shorts that he wrote, directed and edited, all dedicated to highlighting Indigenous stories and perspectives. 

But it was his debut feature "Rhymes of Young Ghouls," which premièred at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, that raised his profile in the film community. He earned praise for the film's tenderness, tension and humour in the face of a complicated story of generational trauma.

The drama launched the career of Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, now of the TV series “Reservation Dogs,” who touted Barnaby's deep love for his family and his community.

“Beautifully stubborn till the very end, Jeff Barnaby was bold in his life and his work,” Jacobs said in a statement provided by Barnaby's publicity representatives.

“He bore a sensitivity, poignancy and depth within him that translated through his films and resonated with audiences Indigenous and non-native alike.”

Barnaby's second film "Blood Quantum," in which Indigenous Peoples are immune to a zombie plague, won six of its 10 nominations at the Canadian Screen Awards in 2021.

It was based on a script Barnaby wrote about a dozen years earlier, and in an interview with The Canadian Press last year, he bemoaned feeling that he had to wait for mainstream culture to catch up to his ideas.

“To a certain extent, nobody knows what to do with me. They don’t know how to plug-and-play an auteur filmmaker that writes Mi’kmaq stories,” Barnaby said.

“So it’s kind of hard to fault the industry, because they don’t know what they’re doing, to be frank. And nobody can tell them, because nobody’s done it yet. Nobody’s figured it out.”

Tailfeathers described Barnaby as "a complicated guy" whose experiences with racism and other issues faced while growing up on the reserve shaped his convictions and deeply influenced his work, including the Indigenous horror hybrid "Blood Quantum."

"The script was so out there and not like anything I've ever done before," she said.

"He was able to ... take a genre that is so familiar and make it distinctly him, distinctly Mi’kmaq and Indigenous, and turn the genre completely upside down."

Cameron Bailey, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival, paid tribute to Barnaby’s remarkable career with a statement on Twitter.

“We should have had so many more films from Jeff Barnaby,” said Bailey.

“‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls,’ ‘Blood Quantum’ and his short films showed an artist powered by a blazing fire. He understood horror on its deepest levels.”

Producer John Christou said Barnaby played an outsized role in advancing the cultural and political need for reconciliation.

“His mastery of the craft, his storytelling, his uncompromising vision, and his humanity, shine through his work,” Christou said in the statement from Barnaby's reps.

“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.”

Barnaby leaves behind his wife, Sarah Del Seronde, and son, Miles.

— with files from Adina Bresge

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 13, 2022.

Cassandra Szklarski and David Friend, The Canadian Press

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