TIFF 2019: Indigenous artists are using horror to unpack colonial trauma

With Jeff Barnaby’s zombie flick Blood Quantum debuting at Midnight Madness, we assembled a roundtable to explore the ways genre storytelling can unearth hard truths

BLOOD QUANTUM directed and written by Jeff Barnaby, with Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon. 96 minutes. September 5, 11:59 pm, Ryerson September 6, 6 pm, TIFF 2, tiff.net EMPIRE OF WILD by Cherie Dimaline book launch on September 16 at Lula Lounge (1585 Dundas West), 7 pm. Free. anotherstory.ca.

White people can be zombies. See also: aliens, body snatchers and bearers of the apocalypse. That’s the space they occupy, whether literally or symbolically, in new narratives by Indigenous artists who are reconfiguring genre to tell stories about colonization, genocide and the trauma thereafter.

Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby follows up his nervy debut, Rhymes For Young Ghouls, with Blood Quantum, the zombie movie opening the Midnight Madness section at the Toronto International Film Festival. In it, Indigenous people are immune to becoming zombies, their reserve becomes the last refuge for humanity, and white people seek shelter. Those settlers can easily turn into flesh-eating monsters, so once again Indigenous people are putting themselves at risk by letting white people on their lands.

Inuit filmmaker Nyla Innuksuk is currently in Nunavut shooting Slash/Back, a coming-of-age story about teenage girls hopping on their bikes to ward off an alien invasion.

Anishinaabe artist Jay Soule, aka Chippewar – our cover artist this week – takes classic movie posters and Indigenizes them: Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator is repurposed into an Indigenous warrior fighting colonial predators Invasion Of The Body Snatchers draws on the Sixties Scoop in Invasion Of The Child Snatchers.

Métis author Cherie Dimaline is adapting her novel The Marrow Thieves into a television series. The YA tale imagines a future where only Indigenous people can dream, an ability believed to be held in their bone marrow. They are tracked, captured and sent to facilities like residential schools so that their marrow can be extracted.

Dimaline’s upcoming novel, Empire Of Wild, features a werewolf-like creature called the Rogarou that stalks the road, tears people apart and has a hand in parting Indigenous people from their lands.

Barnaby, Innuksuk, Soule and Dimaline joined NOW on a conference call to discuss Indigenizing horror and sci-fi genres and unpacking colonial trauma through monster narratives.

Radheyan Simonpillai: Jay, why take classic movies and make them Indigenous?

Jay Soule: I didn’t grow up in my community. I was scooped in 81. I didn’t really have a connection to Indigenous culture, language, practices and family. I grew up watching films and television. I grew up on pop culture.

I’m painting what I’m learning through self-education about Indigenous culture, my people and the issues our communities are facing. And I infuse that into these iconic movies. My work is also about challenging the lack of representation and the misrepresentation of Indigenous people in mainstream films. It’s challenging colonialism in film and television.

RS: Let’s talk about how we’ve seen Indigenous people represented in genre movies in the past.

Jeff Barnaby: It’s been a white man’s game and they’ve been fucking it up.

Nyla Innuksuk: In genre film, any minority group, but Indigenous people in particular, are cast as these wisdom keepers. And that can get transformed into mysticism. There are these romanticized ideas of Indigenous people as having connections to the land that are seen as powers. The Indian burial ground is an example of that.

Cherie Dimaline: Whenever we saw an Indigenous person show up on the screen, it wasn’t excitement that we felt. It was anxiety. You knew it was going to be comic relief or some sort of mystical intervention. The Indigenous person was going to be used as a tool for a white guy’s turning point, like in Natural Born Killers.

JB: My first introduction to Native people onscreen was Alanis Obomsawin’s [1984 film] Incident At Restigouche. It was literally the people from my own community who I was seeing up there. But you could tell the guys onscreen were behaving themselves. It still wasn’t 100 per cent how I saw or experienced people from my community behaving.

You understand the confines of cinema. The second you put a frame on somebody, you’re changing the narrative. You can represent people better. But I don’t think you can ever represent them accurately.

Jeff Barnaby Blood Quantum

Courtesy of Elevation Pictures

RS: Do you all find genre storytelling lends itself to unpacking colonial trauma?

NI: In my own case, working through trauma through genre wasn’t the initial appeal. I’m a big genre fan. But I am working on authentic representation of my community and of the young women who I was working with within the community. I’m trying to create an authentic representation of these girls even if it’s in a fantastical scenario like fighting monsters.

That authentic portrayal includes some messy stuff. I realize that these social factors that were influenced by colonization are such a big part of their lives. It would be inauthentic not to include them. And those things fit in very naturally within an alien invasion movie.

JB: Nobody likes to be lectured. Even white people in the know about the history of Canada are still not wanting to be reminded when they’re looking to be entertained at the theatre. I take tropes from popcorn films and put them in my work to dress up subversive ideas in a way that makes them palatable. My films are Trojan horses for ideas that non-Natives wouldn’t normally engage in. Nobody wants to read about residential schools. But dress it up as something else and it’s 100 per cent more palatable.

I was always trying to make Rhymes as a heist film and Blood Quantum a fun romp in the zombie genre. Everybody said the zombie movie is a played-out genre. So I was like, we got to take a different approach. What if the Natives were immune? It turned into the retelling of the colonization story. It wrote itself. The mechanics of the zombie genre just lends itself to Native history.

RS: The metaphor in Blood Quantum is amazing. Once again, Indigenous people are in danger because they’re letting white people on their land.

JB: What Nyla’s doing in Nunavut, too, the idea that you’re seeing an outside force trying to force its way into a community… it writes itself!

CD: It comes down to this: Everything that we create, write and produce is post-apocalyptic because we survived an apocalypse. We’re the survivors. So if anyone is going to survive an apocalypse or an attack, it’s going to be the people who have already successfully done it.

JB: Any kind of genre film – horror, science fiction – is popular on reserves.

I know why it was appealing for me. I was trying to stay sober and out of trouble. It’s a survival mechanism to lose yourself in these other worlds. And maybe to an extent, it’s like what Cherie mentioned, you can relate to a post-apocalyptic world. I don’t understand white people sitting around a kitchen table talking about how sad their lives are. But I do recognize people trying to survive and fight for their lives.

JS: It’s lived experience. It’s been our existence for hundreds of years. We’re familiar with it. But for me, it’s also escapism. I hated my adopted family. They are terrible, cruel, religious monsters. Pop culture was my escape. I’m still a giant kid. My work is another way to live that.

JB: I didn’t have a childhood. I got exposed to a bunch of really horrible shit. I’m like Jay – I grew up in the foster care system. So I latched onto these fantasy worlds. I never let go of them. As an adult, you pick up the skill to articulate those fantasies. And I think that’s where your profession comes from. For me, I just wanted to build worlds that I could lose myself in.

CD: I have incredible privilege that I am aware of everyday. I was allowed to grow up with my grandmothers, her sisters and her community. The Marrow Thieves is about residential school survival. It came out of the work I was doing with youth in community. They were killing themselves – kids as young as nine. They couldn’t see themselves in the future. They didn’t even use the language of putting themselves as people or community in the future. I just wanted to write a story where you are the future. You’re the answer.

We didn’t lose our ability to dream. We know that in the [residential] schools, kids kept dreaming. We know this because we have our language, our stories and our ceremonies. No matter what happened to them, no matter what they were told, they dreamed of us.

NI: If you’re getting the opportunity to make a movie, you’re pretty lucky. I have to be grateful for everything after having nearly died. Just over two years ago, I had been told that I had a 50-50 chance to survive the month. I had a liver transplant. It was definitely a life-changing thing.

We weren’t supposed to exist in the present as Indigenous people. We were supposed to be wiped out. It was written within Canadian law. With these residential schools, they were intending to take the Indian out of the child. Through programs like the Sixties Scoop that was reinforced. We’re not supposed to exist today with our culture still intact.

To be creating stuff – making movies, telling stories and imagining futures or scenarios where Indigenous people still exist with those things intact – it’s a fuck you.

Nyla Innuksuk

Courtesy of Nyla Innuksuk

Nyla Innuksuk spent the summer making an alien invasion movie in Pangnirtung, Nunavut – the first film ever shot in the Baffin Island hamlet.

RS: Nearly dying also made you step up to the plate. When you pitched Slash/Back at TIFF three years ago, you had a white guy attached to direct.

NI: Everything about it was my project. But it took nearly dying to get the courage to voice what I was feeling and be, like, “I should be the one to write, direct and produce this project.” Everyone agreed.

It made it challenging for my producers, of course, because I’m a first-time director with first-time actors in a community we’ve been told is impossible to film in. I’ve always said diversity takes work. It takes more strategy and that requires more time and money. We figure it out.

JB: One of the biggest things that I continually find challenging is every concept that I introduce in the cinematic world is a new concept. With Rhymes, for example, nobody knew about residential schools. We had to start the film with that quote from the Indian Act about punishment of truancy to children and their families because nobody knew about it.

Nobody knows what the fuck blood quantum is or means, even though it’s adjunct or particular to white history. They have no idea about their own history and its impact on this social setting. So you need to introduce this concept to a whole audience who should know what it is already.

CD: I was just in Ireland. The UK edition of The Marrow Thieves came out and I once again found myself in front of this audience who really wanted to hear about this great story coming from Canada. I had to start by explaining residential schools to them. At some point, the Canadian Consulate is going to stop asking me to go places in the world because that is always the first part of the conversation.

Let’s talk about genocide, residential schools, the Indian Act, blood quantum and all of these issues before you get to the stories because you need to have the context to hold them with. As a creator, it becomes part of the work you have to do. Creating the story but also giving people the proper context to hold it.

RS: Does Indigenous storytelling or folklore lend itself easily to fantasy genres? For instance, Cherie, Empire Of Wild is like a werewolf story but it’s actually inspired by the Rogarou, a story from your culture.

CD: The Rogarou is a creature from a lot of Métis communities. In my community, he’s a giant dog that haunts the road. He sometimes shows up as a man. But he’s also what happens to the people who identify as male in my community and don’t follow their responsibilities, especially when it comes to women.

My grandmother and her sisters used to tell me those stories about the large black dog who haunts the road. The road led into the town. They didn’t want to say: “Don’t go into the town. It’s not safe for our community to be there. You could be hurt. You might not come back.” Instead they would tell us stories of the Rogarou to keep us away from the road. He was a warning. He was a warning especially for the boys to watch yourself, because you could turn into the Rogarou.

Cherie Dimaline

Dancing Cat Books

Métis author Cherie Dimaline’s dystopian YA novel The Marrow Thieves has been optioned for television.

RS: Jeff, is there a big inspiration for Blood Quantum?

JB: The sole inspiration for everything I do is the community I grew up in. Rez life and rez representation is what I do well. I kind of grew up red trash. And that’s what I bring to the screen. Those characters are not refined. A lot of them are hard-partying drunks. They like to fight and fuck.

Everybody’s seen the fucking tree-hugging Indian, the Indian that holds the feather up to the sky and talks shit to god or whatever, the Indian in touch with their culture and the broken Indian. Nobody sees the rez Indian. He seems to scare a lot of people. A lot of the reactions that I get about my films is that they present Native people negatively.

One of the interesting things about Blood Quantum is that it deals specifically with the anger of having to deal with white people, having to deal specifically with that culture infringing upon your space. That’s a real thing. Look at Kahnawake and other Mohawk communities that are physically throwing white people off the reserve. Where is the representation of that anger onscreen or in stories?

It’s real sexy to be the spiritual, in-touch-with-your-ancestors Indian. But nobody wants to hear from the fucking angry, misplaced I-want-to-kill-these-white-people Indians.

That’s who a lot of the people in Blood Quantum are. I need to know that those people are going to know that they’ve been seen. Like, I fucking see you, man. I’m not dismissing you. I’m not sweeping you under the rug. I love you for who you are because you made me who I am. I get my strength, humour, storytelling and love of the language from those people.

JS: You know how many art galleries I’ve been turned away from because my work isn’t that whimsical Indian they all want? There was an art show recently in Oakville in quite a large gallery. The curator, who was told they would have control, loved my work and wanted to put it in. Then [the director] saw the work I was going to put in, the movie poster stuff like Invasion Of The Child Snatchers, and they wouldn’t let me in the show. They said my work was too dark and angry.

CD: People have these perceptions. “We want poverty porn. We want victimization. This is where we’re comfortable with you being.” I had the same experience with sex. A couple of years ago I finished a novel. I initially sent out a piece of it. The beginning is about a girl who is very young. She’s with her grandfather who speaks the language to her. And she’s got this great imagination. Every publisher is interested.

Then I finish it. And guess what? She fucking grows up. And literally the response I get back was, “We don’t actually know what to do with this. We don’t really know what to do with this character. We’re not sure she’s very likable.” Because she has sex! Because she wasn’t a victim, she initiated [sex] and she fucking loved it. People didn’t know what to do with an Indigenous woman who was in control of her sexuality.

I published it anyway with Theytus Books, an Indigenous publisher. It’s The Girl Who Grew A Galaxy. And I didn’t change it. If anything I put more in: her autonomy, her making decisions, her celebrating her sexuality. She was nobody’s victim and I wanted to tell that story.

Even in Empire Of Wild, there’s a couple ways you can bring a man back from being a Rogarou: you hurt him real bad to remind him that he’s a man or you remind him that he has a cock. It’s based on a traditional story but it’s empowering and sexy. I told the team to market it as a one-handed read, which they didn’t really go for.


Samuel Engelking

Scooped from his community in 1981, visual artist Jay Soule, aka Chippewar, grew up on movies and pop culture.

RS: One major thing that’s different between, let’s say, Blood Quantum to other zombie films, and Empire Of Wild to, say, the werewolf narrative, is the focus on the land. There’s a line in Blood Quantum about how the earth is spitting white people back out.

JB: I would describe Blood Quantum as more of an environmental apocalypse film than I would a zombie film. The zombies are incidental from that jumping-off point. If you’re going to equate god with anything, god is the planet, the earth. It is a living and breathing organism. It’s trying to shake off the fleas that are humanity to better its survival.

The film starts and ends in the water. The first act after the prologue begins with the land. There’s an animation that shows the land poisoning a pregnant lady. The metaphor is pretty explicit.

JS: I love the fact that you have zombie animals in it.

JB: The very first thing that you see is the natural world being polluted and perverted. That’s an Indigenous perspective on the genre. Wouldn’t the perversion of life start with the food source? And that’s exactly what happens for the Mi’kmaq in the film. You pull the salmon out of the river and it will poison you. That’s not even a really creative metaphor, man! I’m hitting people between the eyes with a shovel!

CD: The land really is at the basis of all of these stories. It’s going back to centralizing Indigenous thought in everything.

RS: In Empire Of Wild, the men who lose their connection to the land are susceptible to becoming the Rogarou. Also, the entire plot is about Christian groups luring Indigenous people away from their lands so energy companies have a clear path for mining and pipelines.

CD: I came across this Walrus Magazine article in 2007 about Indigenous-fronted evangelical mission tents that were going into Indigenous communities preaching that our ways are evil and witchcraft and you need to come to Jesus. They were very well-funded.

I spent time collecting stories from people who were on the proposed energy pipeline route. I know that with the communities who had come to Jesus, it was easier to get approvals on their land. Those communities didn’t have traditional land use. As soon as you don’t have sweat lodges or traplines on the route, it becomes easier to get the easement approval.

JS: Steamrolling communities by using the church is something they’re still doing.

JB: We went to Listuguj to film. The church there refused to let us on the land and use the likeness of the church. We had to start a petition and go to the archdiocese to get permission to shoot in our own community, literally a hundred yards from where I grew up. We had to force them to let us on our own land. But once we got there it was a fucking free-for-all. They were like, “Don’t go in the graveyard.” We were like, “That’s the first place we’re going.”

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


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