By Cassandra Szklarski
THE CANADIAN PRESS
Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, regarded by many as a visionary of modern Indigenous cinema with projects that included magic realism, horror and sharp social critique, has died.
Representatives said Barnaby died Thursday in Montreal at age 46 after a yearlong battle with cancer.
Barnaby’s short but impactful career included two acclaimed feature films and several shorts that he wrote, directed and edited, all dedicated to highlighting Indigenous stories and perspectives.
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 went on to appear in the comedy “Letterkenny” and the upcoming Canadian feature “Alice, Darling.”
“He really taught people to do it your own way and never compromise.”
The Montreal-based writer-director burst onto the scene with his
2013 debut feature “Rhymes for Young Ghouls,” a revenge story that cast an unflinching eye on Canada’s residential school system and ongoing colonial violence.
The drama launched the career of Kawennahere Devery Jacobs, now of the TV series “Reservation Dogs,” who touted Barnaby’s deep love for his family and his community.
“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 last year’s Canadian Screen Awards.
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.”
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.”
Raised on the Listuguj Reserve in Quebec, Barnaby moved to Montreal to attend Dawson College and later Concordia University to study film.
When she was cast in “The Colony,” Horn said she felt insecure that being a white-passing Mohawk actor would limit what roles she’d be considered for.
Horn asked Barnaby if she should dye her red hair a darker colour so she would look “more Indigenous,” but the director was quick to shoot down the suggestion.
“He was like, if anything, you should dye your hair even more red… The bottom line is you’re native,” Horn said by phone. “I carried that with me for my whole career now.”
“A lot of non-Indigenous directors would never even consider casting me or looking at me. I think that was valuable, and that’s also the value of having Indigenous people in those roles.”
Friend and 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.