Film industry loses ‘visionary’ Mi’gmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby

The Mi’gmaw director dies from cancer at age 46.

Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby

After a year-long battle with cancer, filmmaker Jeff Barnaby from the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj has died. He was 46.

His public relations firm made the announcement on behalf of his family and friends.

“Jeff Barnaby redefined Indigenous cinema by injecting elements of magic realism, body horror, and sci-fi into Indigenous stories,” the release from Touchwood PR said. “He never would have called his films Indigenous Futurism, but his films invented the genre.”

According to the release, Barnaby wrote, directed, and edited all of his films, including his first short film called From Cherry English that was released in 2004 and premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. He followed that up with The Colony in 2007, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Barnaby’s debut feature film Rhymes for Young Ghouls was released in 2013.

“Jeff provided a scathing indictment of Canada’s Residential School system, wrapped in a revenge story set on the fictional Red Crow reserve,” said the release. “Considered hyperbolic at the time with its depictions of mass graves at residential schools, the film opened new avenues for Indigenous cinema and inspired a new generation of Indigenous filmmakers.”

Barnaby’s follow to Rhymes for Young Ghouls was 2019’s Blood Quantum – “a raucous Zombie film and critique of colonialism where Indigenous peoples are immune to the zombie plague.” The film was nominated for 10 Canadian Screen Awards and won six.

“Jeff was a demanding craftsman. He worked with Quebec’s most talented crews in the production of his films. He worked repeatedly with several close friends and collaborators, including producer John Christou, Sound Designer Joe Barrucco, Cinematographer Michel St-Martin, Make-up FX Maestro Erik Gosselin, and a core group of indigenous actors including Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Glen Gould, Brandon Oakes, Michael Greyeyes and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers,” said the release.

Filmmaker Jeff Barnaby
Barnaby on the set of Rhymes for Young Ghouls. Photo: APTN.

Barnaby also spoke about the plight of Indigenous directors and filmmakers in Canada.

In a 2020 interview with Face to Face host Dennis Ward, Barnaby said that the Canadian film industry was making “slow but albeit reluctant” steps towards supporting Indigenous filmmakers.

“It’s a bittersweet industry for me because on one hand, it allows me to exist, it gives me real creative freedom with what I’m doing but at the same time, I’d like to see more Native filmmakers get that opportunity,” said Barnaby.

The interview took place shortly after the release of Blood Quantum, which was referred to as an “important step for Native filmmaking” in one review.

“I think you’re going to see a lot more work from Native filmmakers and I think that’s to the Canadian film industry’s credit,” said Barnaby, although adding “the kind of attention we get as Native filmmakers should be reflected in the budgets that we get, to put it bluntly.”

In the release, several friends commented on Barnaby’s death.

“Jeff Barnaby’s films changed Canada, and played an outsize role in advancing the cultural and political imperative to reconcile with Indigenous peoples,” said friend and producer John Christou. “His mastery of the craft, his storytelling, his uncompromising vision, and his humanity, shine through his work.

“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. 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. My love and deepest condolences go out to Sarah and Miles.”

According to friend and actor Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, Barnaby “bore a sensitivity, poignancy and depth within him, that translated through his films and resonated with audiences Indigenous and non-Native alike. Jeff had an ineffable impact on my life. I wouldn’t be an actor today, if it weren’t for Jeff.

“I am filled with tremendous gratitude for having known him and for having been part of his life. His loss is felt so deeply.”

Barnaby is survived by his wife Sarah Del Seronde and son Miles.