by Jamaias DaCosta
...I’ve taken to calling it positivity porn. How do you go through these atrocities and pretend that we are all well adjusted?
Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby grew up on the Listuguj Reserve in Québec and makes no apologies for the challenges he faced growing up. While he bounced in and out of foster care he attributes much of his strength and resiliency to the Indigenous women he was surrounded by. In fact, his love and respect for Indigenous women inspired much of Jeff’s latest film, Rhymes for Young Ghouls which features a fiercely spirited female protagonist, Aila; a character he says he wrote to begin his homage to the strength of Indigenous women.
JD: You grew up in Listuguj, which was featured in Alanis Obamsawin’s film, Incident at Restigouche. I read that she was a major influence for you as a filmmaker; can you talk about what some of your other early influences were as a writer and then filmmaker?
JB: Like every other teenager I got hooked on Stephen King and comic books at a very early age. I was reading things like Batman, Superman, X-men, Conan, I’m a huge Conan fan to this day. I read whatever comic I could get my hands on. And then I started reading Stephen King, which weirdly enough turned me on to serious literature. My step mom was in university and studying people like Robert Frost and other classical literature. For me it wasn’t a form of education, I was reading it for entertainment. If you can imagine a teenager reading Shakespeare for entertainment, that’s who I was when I was thirteen, fourteen. That turned into wanting to write stories and draw, and express myself creatively. Then I started getting into music in my mid-teens and that was just one more mode of expression. All of that lent itself to filmmaking because it’s probably the most diverse medium of creation you can use - you’re engaging on pretty much every level. You’re inventing a world.
JD: What was the appeal for you at such a young age to read Shakespeare for entertainment?
JB: Witches, man! I mean they subject you to Shakespeare in high school anyways, but reading Macbeth and being a horror fan, it’s not that much of a stretch. It’s full of all this lurid material plus it covers all your basic structural narratives. I have always maintained the idea that if you want to get good at something, you try to emulate the people that have been good at it. By virtue of your own personality it will be different because it goes thru the filter of who you are and how you express yourself.
JD: At the Toronto screening of Rhymes earlier this month you talked about yourself as a masculanized writer, and that you wanted to challenge yourself to write a female protagonist. I have also read you say some of the most powerful and influential real life heroes in your life were Indigenous women. Can you firstly talk about why it was important to take on the challenge of writing a female protagonist and what some of the influences were for you in the development of Aila?
JB: My Nation is a matriarchal society, and paying respect to that archetype of a woman and the strength that is there particularly in First Nations women, it’s imperative for me as a First Nations man who loves his mom, and loves his wife and loves his sisters, to pay reverence to their struggle and their strength. I think women are awesome! My mom had me at such a young age, and didn’t have a lot of support around her, but still managed to make it work. She and my step mom were a big influence, along with my sisters, and seeing what they went through at such a young age gave me a measuring stick in terms of the things you can complain about in life. When you’re young and full of yourself, it’s easy to look at your life as being the most tragic thing that ever happened. But you have these women there and they kept me grounded and put things into perspective for me. They didn’t do it by words, they did it by just living.
I thought, if there was ever a point in time that this residential school was going to crumble it would have been in the 70’s, it just made sense to me to have a young Native girl bring this institution of ugliness to its knees. It made sense to me because First Nations women are the language and cultural keepers, they are the epicenter of our matriarchal society. I’ve mostly only known strength to come from the women in my life. Which isn’t to say that the men haven’t been influential, but the rock steady power that doesn’t waiver seems to come from women. It’s going to take me more than one film to articulate the reverence I feel for the women in my life, particularly my wife who just gave birth to my son. My wife is Navajo, so even though we are from a different culture, she is the most amazing woman I have ever met in my life, and she really is the anchor that kind of made all of this happen. My wife is a badass, she grew up on a reserve, she has her Masters degree and she’s a filmmaker too. She makes it look effortless. It’s a struggle keeping up with her.
JD: The setting of the film is the fictional Red Crow Reservation in the 70’s. Can you talk about the political climate of that time and why it was important that you depict this era?
JB: Deejay NDN, from A Tribe Called Red, made a good point in an article recently, he said that ours was the first generation that really was able to function and operate without having gone to residential school. Back then, in the 70’s, the idea that it was on the tail end of the civil rights movement in the US and you were starting to see First Nations people take a cue from that and articulate themselves in terms of having a place and identity, that trickled down into building a personality that just flat out was not going to be oppressed. It’s set in 1976, which is the year I was born, and it was with the idea that these people, at that time, set the rest of us free. And although we are still dealing with that legacy, if they didn’t do what they did, we wouldn’t even have the opportunity to even have a voice about residential schools, colonialism and the kind of oppressive nature of Canada in general. It had to happen at some point, we have to defend ourselves as human beings. It was the perfect time to set it because the oppression was still there but Native people were starting to draw lines in the sand.
JD: Congratulations on your film being selected by TIFF as one of Canada’s top ten films! Can you talk about your experience with non-Indigenous Canadian audiences for this film? Do you feel Canadians are ready to hear our stories?
JB: There isn’t any kind of translation that is needed. Canadians are ready to hear our stories, but it doesn’t matter what the story is in terms of film, it matters how the story is told, the content and quality of the material. Funnily enough, I don’t get static from non-Native people; I get static from Native people. “Why are you depicting these negative stereotypes?” I am not expressing myself in stereotypes, I am expressing what I have experienced firsthand. If you see it as a stereotype, that’s you bringing your bullshit to the table. It has always been a point of contention with the way I chose to express myself on film. Jason Ryle [Excutive Director] from ImagineNATIVE [Film + Media Arts Festival] has referred to me as a fringe filmmaker in the Native arts community and it’s true, I don’t fit in there, specifically because I don’t try to perpetuate the idea of drum and feather Indians that talk to the spirits and are one with the ancestors and all that other new age bullshit.
Why do you think I didn’t win at imagineNATIVE? Because I don’t cater to the idea of the drum and feather Indian, I put all that expression into the language of Mi’kMaq. I am more interested in the Indian after the ceremony, not during. Ceremonies are meant to be sacred, and take place in a specific space and time, but I am interested in what those guys do when they go home. When the pomp and presentation of ceremony is not there. I am more interested in humanizing Native people rather than perpetuating this idea that we’re doing ok. I can’t buy into that stereotype because I lived on a reserve (laughing)….Paul Rickard, Mushkeg Media, and I grew up on reserves, we talk about that all the time. Paul gives me this example of this woman who was trying to get in touch with her roots. She wanted to get in touch with her spiritual side, and go visit a reserve. So she goes to the reserve, and she finds these overweight, pre-diabetic, kind of fucked up Indians eating greasy food, and she got turned off, because that is not what she had romanticized. I am interested in presenting my variation of that; it goes through whatever filters I slap onto it and comes out a variation of everything I experienced as a young man. I find that people who make films about the spiritual Indians are almost trying to portray a positive stereotype, I’ve taken to calling it positivity porn. How do you go through these atrocities and pretend that we are all well adjusted? It’s a serious issue in Native films.
I did a screenplay called the colony that got shit on by all these urban Native juries who didn’t want to give it money because they thought it portrayed Native people as being negative, and I’m like who the fuck are you guys who’ve never stepped foot on a reserve telling the kid who grew up on a reserve what to say about his community? That’s what blew my mind; it took me quite a while to get funders around to my point of view.
JD: Spoiler alert: can you talk about the significance of the climax of the film being carried out by the young child, Tyler, and also the unspoken subtext related to that moment between Tyler and Aila?
JB: It’s explicit, this little boy becomes the avenging angel for all the kids that came before him; he’s even still wearing the uniform from St. Dymphna's. The end between Aila and Tyler is like, how do we move forward into the future? We’ve put ourselves through this hell and what do we do from here?
JD: Rhymes for Young Ghouls has its theatrical release in Toronto on January 31st. Where else will people be able to see the film?
JB: Screening in every major city by the end of February. People would have to stay tuned to our Twitter and Facebook, our distributors are on top of their game in terms of getting the word out there.
JD: Are you optimistic for Indigenous filmmaking in Canada? Do you have any advice for Indigenous youth who aspire to be filmmakers?
JB: We’re starting to see a lot of filmmakers, particularly women filmmakers like Helen Haig-Brown, and Lisa Jackson. I’m hoping to see a feature out of one of them soon.
My advice for people trying to get into the business: don’t romanticize it. Don’t be afraid to go too far. A good measure of success is; if you feel like you have gone too far, you’ve probably hit your sweet spot. Don’t feel obligated to have your story told just because you’re a First Nations artist, feel like you need to make good stories first, and the idea that you are Native will translate via your art form. Don’t make it heavy handed. That is one of the issues in First Nations film and politics. It goes a little too far with the “once we were warriors” speeches, but I think stories should come first before politics.