Fans of horror films and Indigenous films were shocked and saddened by the sudden passing of visionary Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby. The late director made two unforgettable feature films that used the tools and tropes of the horror genre to tell the true horrors of colonization and contemporary racism. He was only 46 and died from cancer.
His first film “Rhymes with Young Ghoul” was built around the violence and the legacy of the residential school system. Canada’s national newspaper the Globe and Mail hailed the film as “a milestone: a savvy native-Canadian genre film with a strong, beautiful and ingenious heroine whose courage helps right an injustice a lot more real than whatever Katniss is fighting for in The Hunger Games.”
The lead role in the film was played by Devery Jacobs in her debut. Jacobs has gone on to acclaim in “Reservation Dogs” and has recently been announced to play a key role in Marvel’s new “Echo” show.
“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,” Jacobs posted to Twitter soon after news of the director's passing became public.
Barnaby’s second film, 2019’s “Blood Quantum” was the most highly acclaimed Canadian film of the year. It was nominated for 10 Canadian Screen Awards and took home six, including Best Actor for Michael Greyeyes. In its review the Austin Chronicle noted the film's dexterity in speaking Indigenous truth and delivering the gore that genre film lovers want. “Blood Quantum operates from a place of tribal identity and that no white audience members will truly be able to understand. In this way, Barnaby’s film rejects the default white gaze of so many horror films, choosing to tell a story through an unapologetically Indigenous lens. This approach, when combined with Barnaby’s unquestionable skill as a horror director, make Blood Quantum one of the most fascinating horror films of the past few years,” Matthew Monagle wrote in 2020, “but this does not mean that Blood Quantum is fodder for future graduate papers and nothing more. Make no mistake: this is an aggressively gnarly movie.”
It was there from the beginning he was an Indigenous David Cronenberg but with ideas digging much deeper than Canada’s horror master has ever dared dig into his own country’s horrific past. Barnaby’s short film “From Cherry English” in 2004, is body horror perfection with lead actor Nathaniel Arcand throwing up disgusting slug-like creatures while spewing blood all over the white porcelain sink and the bathroom mirror. It is very much reminiscent of the scene in Cronenberg's “The Fly” in which Jeff Goldblum's transforming fly man vomits up digestive bile and teeth. In Cronenberg films the viscera symbolizes man's disconnect from his own body or inability to connect with others. In Barnaby's films it's that and the horror of genocide. What is being ripped out of Arcand's character is not mere flesh and bone but language and culture.
John Squires, editor in chief of the horror film fan site Bloody Disgusting tweeted, “Blood Quantum is such an incredible movie and Jeff Barnaby was truly just getting started. We've lost not only an immensely talented filmmaker but one whose perspective and voice are irreplaceable.”
From the magazine long considered to be the bible of the horror genre, Fangoria tweeted:
“We’re saddened to learn of the passing of Mi'kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, whose unique voice enriched his feature films BLOOD QUANTUM, RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS, as well as his short film work. Our condolences to his friends, family and fans.”
The Toronto Film Critics Association called him “visionary” and tweeted, “RIP visionary filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, who broke barriers with badass films like RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS and BLOOD QUANTUM. The director passed away at 46 following a battle with cancer. Our thoughts are with his family and colleagues.”
Cameron Bailey, CEO of the Toronto International Film Festival tweeted, “We should have had so many more films from Jeff Barnaby. 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. Such a shock. RIP.”
Canada’s national film funding agency Telefilm Canada tweeted, “We wish to extend our deepest condolences to the family and friends of filmmaker Jeff Barnaby. His visionary take on genre cinema, and uncompromising dedication to his Indigenous heritage in the stories he told, has left an inspiring mark on cinema.”
The future work is being missed but it was the work that he could not get to do that should also be mourned. Despite the promise in his short films and the skill shown in writing, directing and editing Ghouls it would take six years before “Blood Quantum” would come to the screen.
Jacobs noted that his passion was not only on the screen but in life. “Beautifully stubborn ’til the very end, Jeff Barnaby was bold in his life and his work. He bore a sensitivity, poignancy and depth within him, that translated through his films and resonated with audiences Indigenous and non-Native alike.”
“Jeff loved his wife Sarah & son Miles ferociously, & would jump at every opportunity to tell me as such. Despite having a challenging upbringing, Jeff harbored deep love for his family & community, Listuguj. My heart goes out to each of them, as we send Jeff on his journey”.
It was his family and the chance to be family that he felt was one of the great gifts in his life. “One of the interesting things about living in the generation we’re in right now is that we’re given an opportunity as young Native people to own our fates. It’s not necessarily easy, but it’s easier, and the idea that my wife and I are still together raising our son in what’s considered to be a classic nuclear family is quite an accomplishment for Native people when — for the past 200, 300, 400 years — the main focus of the destructive might of the colonies was to destroy Native families. For that to kind of make a comeback I think is almost a miracle” Barnaby told Vulture in 2020
Films – Written, directed, edited
“From Cherry English” (2004)
“The Colony” (2007)
“File Under Miscellaneous” (2010)
“Rhymes for Young Ghouls” (2013)
“Blood Quantum” (2019)
*Correction: The lead actor in the film, “From Cherry English,” was Nathaniel Archand. His name was misspelled in an earlier version of the article.
Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.