Jeff Barnaby, the acclaimed Indigenous filmmaker behind Blood Quantum and Rhymes for Young Ghouls, has passed away at 46 after a year-long battle with cancer. He is survived by his wife Sarah Del Seronde and son Miles.
An avid genre cinema fan since childhood, Barnaby fused his early influences—mainly classic horror films of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, including Conan the Barbarian, Blade Runner, Predator and David Cronenberg’s Rabid—with his upbringing on the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj to create visionary works that fused Indigenous stories with elements of magic realism, body horror, and science fiction.
Throughout his films, Barnaby aimed to highlight the cosmology of the Mi’gmaq language. He recently wrote, “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. As an Indigenous person you exist to move your culture forward from the past into the present to insure 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.”
His sophomore (and final) feature Blood Quantum is set in the midst of a gory zombie apocalypse. In the film, the majority of Earth’s population have fallen victim to a deadly virus, with the exception of the Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow, whose inhabitants are bizarrely immune to the disease. The work utilizes the best of the zombie subgenre—blood, guts and epic kills—to make an unambiguous critique of colonialism. The film also balances the delicate themes of fatherhood and family, a topic that was especially fresh to the filmmaker as he had just become a father for the first time. While promoting the film at TIFF in 2019, he said, “If you’re gonna make a horror film, you’re gonna make it about the thing you’re most scared of. And the thing I was most scared of at the time was being a shitty dad. That’s what the whole film is about. It’s about crappy dads trying to redeem themselves… Sometimes it takes the end of the world to bring out the best in a person.”
Barnaby wrote, directed and edited Blood Quantum himself, as he did on Rhymes for Young Ghouls.
His untimely death is mourned by his collaborators: In a statement released by Barnaby’s representatives, John Christou, a friend and producer of the late filmmaker wrote:
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. 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.
Barnaby’s passing, far beyond the context of his still-fresh artistic career, is a great loss.
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.