Award-winning filmmaker and acclaimed visionary Jeff Barnaby passed away in Montreal on Oct. 13, following a year-long battle with cancer.
The 46-year-old, who was born and raised on the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj, is widely celebrated as redefining Indigenous cinema with elements of magical realism, body horror and sci-fi.
According to a release announcing Barnaby’s passing, he is remembered as a passionate filmmaker who loved music and often created the soundtracks to his films on the fly with whatever instruments were required. He was uncompromising in his stance on Indigenous identity and storytelling, and was a valued member of the film community for his authenticity and honesty.
“In Mi’gmaq the word for ancestor and parent is the same thing, ungi’gul. Your language, your land, and your elders are time capsules as much as they are cultural touchstones,” Barnaby recently wrote, as per the release.
“As an Indigenous person you exist to move your culture forward from the past into the present to ensure its survival for the future. And whereas the inherited trauma can inform the theme, experiencing time as a singularity effects structure, the indigenous narrative exists all at once because we are living, breathing history.”
Growing up, Barnaby was inspired by horror and sci-fi films like David Cronenberg’s “Rabid,” the Quebec feature “Léolo,” “Bladerunner” and “Predator.” He was also heavily impacted by Alanis Obomoswain’s “Incident at Restigouche,” a documentary about the Quebec Provincial Police’s raid on a reserve. The film was shot on Barnaby’s home reserve when he was four-years-old.
Later, Barnaby attended Dawson College in Montreal and went on to graduate from Concordia University’s Cinema Program.
Barnaby wrote, directed and edited all of his films, beginning with his 2004 short, “From Cherry English,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. His 2007 film, “The Colony,” premiered as one of the Top Ten at the Toronto International Film Festival that year. In 2010, “File Under Miscellaneous” won the Best Indigenous Language Production Jury Prize from ImagineNative Film + Media Arts Festival, and “Etlinisigu’niet (Bleed Down)” was made for the National Film Board of Canada in 2015.
The filmmaker debuted his first feature film, “Rhymes for Young Ghouls,” in 2013. Devery Jacobs, Glen Gould, Brandon Oakes and Roseanne Supernault starred in the revenge story, which was set on the fictional Red Crow reserve. It tackled horrifying events surrounding Canada’s Residential School system, stories of which are still coming to light in the country today.
Barnaby’s final feature, the 2019 colonialism-critiquing film “Blood Quantum,” was 12 years in the making. It traced an apocalyptic event where Indigenous peoples were immune to a zombie plague. The film won seven Canadian Screen Awards—including a personal win for Barnaby in Achievement in Editing. He was also nominated for best Original Screenplay.
“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,” said Jacobs.
“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. We were bound and forever changed from that experience, and formed a special connection of understanding, respect and longstanding friendship.”
“Jeff Barnaby’s films changed Canada, and played an outsize role in advancing the cultural and political imperative to reconcile with Indigenous peoples. His mastery of the craft, his storytelling, his uncompromising vision, and his humanity shine through his work,” wrote friend and producer John Christou.
“My greatest hope is that the next generation of Indigenous filmmakers will pick up the torch and honor his legacy by being equally uncompromising in the realization of their vision. The film industry has lost a visionary and unique voice, but more importantly, many of us have lost a friend. We are comforted in knowing that Jeff’s legacy will live on through his incredible work.”
Barnaby is survived by his wife, Sarah Del Seronde, and his son Miles.
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