Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby on pushing boundaries, pursuing his vision

Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby on pushing boundaries, pursuing his vision

TORONTO — Jeff Barnaby is a visionary in the filmmaking world — so much so that it seems the industry is still trying to figure out where he fits, he says.

His Indigenous zombie horror “Blood Quantum” is the leading film contender for next week’s Canadian Screen Awards with 10 nominations, including best editing and screenplay for Barnaby. And yet he says he’s struggling to land his next project.

The Montreal-based Mi’kmaq writer-director says he has many things in the works but, as he tweeted this week, the one big project he had high hopes for “got shot down” and he’s trying to figure out what the industry wants.

“I’m almost an institution unto myself in the sense that my stories are particular to my tribe. And I think it’s hard sometimes to apply that to a more general audience,” Barnaby, who also gained acclaim with his 2013 debut feature “Rhymes for Young Ghouls,” said this week by phone.

“So I think, 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. 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.”

He also feels he has to wait for the culture to catch up to the contemporary Indigenous work he’s doing.

“Blood Quantum,” an apocalyptic tale of a plague infecting non-Indigenous people outside a fictional First Nations reserve, is not just an ode to classic horror movies but also a commentary on colonialism. And “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” is a stylized look at an Indigenous teen who resorts to selling drugs to avoid going to residential school in 1976.

Barnaby said he’s now writing a “cosmic horror road movie” titled “The Old Breed.”

“I wrote ‘Blood Quantum’ 13, 14 years ago, and it took that long for the zeitgeist to catch up to the concepts that were being executed,” he said.

“And even then, it took a pandemic that we’re still in to bring those ideas to the fore for everybody to better understand them.”

Of course, the pandemic also poses another problem for getting work, as the industry faces theatre closures, expensive and time-consuming COVID-19 protocols on sets and pared-down cast and crew numbers.

“I’m getting the sense — from the three-times-removed that I am from the actual centre of decision-making — that everybody’s downsizing, everybody’s shrinking their outfits to better accommodate the belt-tightening that’s going have to happen when all these theatres invariably close down, because it doesn’t look like we’re getting out of this pandemic anytime soon,” Barnaby said.

“So I think we’re in this flux where a lot of people are going to be shifting focus more to television, and for a filmmaker, that’s a weird space to be.”

Some parts of the industry still haven’t found their footing on a push to increase representation and diversity throughout the screen sector, he added.

“There’s no shortage of hospital shows but they can only have one Native show at a time on here,” said Barnaby.

“A lot of time you’ll hear, ‘Oh, we already have our Native show’ or something like that.”

While the industry declares that voices of Black, Indigenous and people of colour need to take centre stage, “the reality is, when you look behind those productions, none of the creators are actually people of colour or just different points of view,” Barnaby added.

The CBC’s heralded Indigenous coming-of-age series “Trickster” was “supposed to be the next step” on that front, proving to executives who have been “scared to take that next step” that “Native people can do it, too,” Barnaby said.

But the show, which has 15 CSA nominations, was cancelled after just one season in January amid controversy over co-creator Michelle Latimer’s claims of Indigenous ancestry.

“And you’re smash-cutting right back to the beginning again, when you think you made all this progress,” Barnaby said.

Barnaby grew up on the Listuguj Reserve in Quebec and has also helmed many short films, including the Jutra Award-nominated “The Colony” and the Genie-nominated “File Under Miscellaneous.”

He said the other projects he’s working on include a possible TV show with Chris Lavis, co-director of the Oscar-nominated animated short “Madame Tutli-Putli.”

He also edited an upcoming stop-motion animated film by Terril Calder for the National Film Board of Canada, and has “continued to explore” the world of “Blood Quantum” and Red Crow, the fictional reserve that provides the setting of both of his features.

“It’s not everybody that can say, ‘I’ve only worked on my own material and I’ve only committed myself to Indigenous storytellers or Indigenous stories.’ I can say that,” Barnaby said.

“I mean, it hasn’t really benefited me actually, but artistically you have moments like (the CSAs) and I really just appreciate everybody else finally getting acknowledged for the work that they do.”

The Canadian Screen Awards will air Monday through Thursday, in a series of livestreamed presentations on the website and social media channels of the Academy Of Canadian Cinema & Television.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 14, 2021.

Victoria Ahearn, The Canadian Press


Just Posted

Shanna Lydiard complains that her mail hasn’t been delivered for over 10 weeks due to water main construction on her West Park block. (Photo by LANA MICHELIN/Advocate staff).
Residents of Red Deer street have no mail delivery for 10-plus weeks

Shanna Lydiard says she doesn’t trust the city’s promises

FILE - Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced that Albertans could start booking second dose shots of the COVID-19 vaccine starting Tuesday night. (photography by Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta)
Public measures will be lifted: Alberta will enter Stage 3 on Canada Day

Alberta will enter Stage 3 of its Open for Summer Plan on… Continue reading

A massive round dance, involving hundreds of people at Bower Ponds, was a highlight of Canada Day celebrations in 2000. (Contributed photo)
Fireworks without a Canada Day celebration is planned for July 1 in Red Deer

Many residents aren’t in a festive mood, with recent Indigenous graves discovery

Students’ Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen says the government needs to be transparent about why RDC doesn’t have degrees yet. (Red Deer Advocate file photo)
Brittany Lausen earns RDC Outstanding Student Award

Student’s Association of Red Deer College president Brittany Lausen has been named… Continue reading

Gabe Cuthand, Brandon McDonald, Dean Johnson and Dakota Dion drumming during a past Indigenous Peoples Day celebration at City Hall Park in Red Deer (Advocate file photo).
Indigenous Peoples Day will be celebrated online on Monday in Red Deer

National Indigenous Peoples Day will be celebrated in Red Deer on Monday… Continue reading

A supporter of presidential candidate Ebrahim Raisi holds a sign during a rally in Tehran, Iran, Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Iran's clerical vetting committee has allowed just seven candidates for the Friday, June 18, ballot, nixing prominent reformists and key allies of President Hassan Rouhani. The presumed front-runner has become Ebrahim Raisi, the country's hard-line judiciary chief who is closely aligned with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. (AP Photo/Ebrahim Noroozi)
Iran votes in presidential poll tipped in hard-liner’s favor

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iranians voted Friday in a presidential… Continue reading

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto, left, and President Seiko Hashimoto attend the news conference after receiving a report from a group of infectious disease experts on Friday, June 18, 2021, in Tokyo. The experts including Shigeru Omi, head of a government coronavirus advisory panel, issued a report listing the risks of allowing the spectators and the measurements to prevent the event from triggering a coronavirus spread. (Yuichi Yamazaki/Pool Photo via AP)
Top medical adviser says ‘no fans’ safest for Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO (AP) — The safest way to hold the Tokyo Olympics is… Continue reading

FILE - In this June 12, 2021, file photo, Rajkumar Haryani, 38, who painted his body to create awareness about vaccination against the coronavirus poses for photographs after getting a dose of Covishield vaccine in Ahmedabad, India. Starting June 21, 2021, every Indian adult can get a COVID-19 vaccine dose for free that was purchased by the federal government. The policy reversal announced last week ends a complex system of buying vaccines that worsened inequities in accessing vaccines. India is a key global supplier of vaccines and its missteps have left millions of people waiting unprotected. The policy change is likely to address inequality but questions remain and shortages will continue. (AP Photo/Ajit Solanki, File)
How India is changing vaccine plan amid shortages

NEW DELHI (AP) — Starting Monday, every adult in India will be… Continue reading

Chief of Defence staff General Jonathan Vance speaks during a news conference to , in Ottawa Tuesday August 30, 2016. The Canadian Armed Forces says it is making progress in the fight against sexual misconduct in the ranks, but much more work needs to be done. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Fred Chartrand
Freeze promotions until military commanders are screened for misconduct: Committee

OTTAWA — A parliamentary committee has called for a freeze on all… Continue reading

Minister of Families, Children and Social Development Ahmed Hussen takes part in an update on the COVID-19 pandemic, in Ottawa on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020. Hussen says he is looking to municipalities to reshape local rules to more quickly build units through the government's national housing strategy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick
Cities should redo planning, permitting to align with housing strategy, minister says

OTTAWA — The federal minister in charge of affordable housing says he… Continue reading

A dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine is pictured at a vaccination site in Vancouver Thursday, March 11, 2021. On June 1, NACI had said AstraZeneca recipients "could" get Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna for their second shot if they wanted, but Thursday went further to say an mRNA vaccine was the "preferred" choice. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
NACI advice to mix vaccines gets varied reaction from AstraZeneca double-dosers

When Gwenny Farrell booked her second dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine… Continue reading

Brooklyn Nets' James Harden, right, is guarded by Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, center, during the first half of Game 6 of a second-round NBA basketball playoff series Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Phelps)
Bucks bounce back to defeat Nets 104-89 and force Game 7

MILWAUKEE — Khris Middleton scored 38 points, Giannis Antetokounmpo added 30 and… Continue reading

Tampa Bay Lightning center Brayden Point (21) brings the puck up the ice against the New York Islanders during the third period of Game 3 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup semifinals, Thursday, June 17, 2021, in Uniondale, N.Y. Tampa Bay won 2-1.(AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
Point scores again, Lightning beat Islanders 2-1 in Game 3

Lightning 2 Islanders 1 (Tampa Bay leads series 2-1) UNIONDALE, N.Y. —… Continue reading

Most Read