In memoriam: Cin | Comm graduate and Mi’gmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby
Acclaimed Mi’gmaq filmmaker and Dawson Cinema| Communications alumni, Jeff Barnaby died on October 13, 2022 at the age of 46, after a year-long battle with cancer.
Jeff was an immensely gifted and highly original filmmaker whose exceptional talents were clear from the start. Fresh out of film school, his early, surrealistic shorts From Cherry English (2004) and The Colony (2007), and later File Under Miscellaneous (2010) took home top awards at prestigious festivals across the US and Canada: Sundance, TIFF, VIFF. Yorkton, and the ImagineNATIVE Film and Media Arts Festival.
Committed to telling Indigenous stories in new and challenging ways, Jeff drew on his native Mi’gmaq language and world views, and sampled the genre conventions of science-fiction and horror films, film noir, anime and Shakespearian tragedy, to dramatize the complex emotional after effects of colonial history on Indigenous communities. Jeff’s first feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013) engaged “a teen-age Aboriginal, revenge-seeking drug-dealer” to deliver a searing indictment of Canada’s Residential School system years before the mass graves of Indigenous children came to light. Blood Quantum (2019) followed up with an equally blistering critique of colonialism in the guise of a ‘zombie’ apocalypse film, completed just as the COVID pandemic began.
As a student in CEGEP, Jeff’s gifts were already apparent. Although he liked to give credit to Dawson for refining his cinematic vision, in truth it was already well formed when he arrived. At Dawson he merely acquired the tools to express it. Former Cin|Com Chair Simon Davies, remembers Jeff as “incredibly focused, mindful and competent and a very nice human – the most creative production student” that he had ever “had the pleasure to share time with.” He also recalls that the first short the budding filmmaker made in class “was so innovative, confrontational and explorative the class was numb after watching it.”
IMA’s John Connolly shared a similar story about the reaction of students to watching one of the films Jeff made after leaving Dawson: “Jeff was always generous with his time when it came to Dawson. I remember one visit where he walked in, said hello to the class, and cold-screened Red Right Hand, a short film he had just made at Concordia, very dark and very Jeff. Anyway, the film finishes, I turn on the lights, and the class is not just silent, but frozen. I remember thinking ‘oh oh, maybe I should have asked him what he was going to show’. After shock came the anger. Students were asking him ‘how could you …’ and ‘why would you …’ and Jeff starts to give background, context, what the story was really about, etc. He talks for about 15 minutes. The class comes to an end, he gets up to leave, and gets a spontaneous standing ovation from a room full of 18-year-olds. It was like a magic trick. That was Jeff. So much depth, and humour, and anger and grace.”
Michelle Smith, Cin|Com teacher and director of the First Peoples’ Post-Secondary Storytelling Exchange project echoes John’s appreciation of the pedagogical value of Jeff’s films: “so much of the discourse around Indigenous experience is about lack, and problems; it’s deficit-based. Jeff’s films featured complicated, larger than life characters with shitloads of agency, like Devery Jacobs’ Aila who takes serious revenge on the Indian agent in Rhymes for Young Ghouls. What a gift for a film teacher, to share Jeff’s dark and beautiful worlds and uniquely original stories with students who are just starting to get their heads around colonization and its ongoing impacts. Miigwech Jeff for fighting to make your movies. You will forever help us see.”
Jeff’s films are not easy to watch. Their subjects disturb, and the filmmaker’s methods unsettle. Moving from comedy to tragedy to horror and back again, the films shift genre gears rapidly and repeatedly, sometimes in the course of a single scene. The tone changes that result are startling. CBC journalist George Stroumboulopoulos aptly dubbed Jeff’s film style “Bare Knuckle Cinema,” and Chelsea Vowel, a Métis writer and educator, described Jeff’s film work in similar terms: as “absolutely unrelenting in its brutality.” Even so, she still insisted that “every adult living in Canada should watch it.”
As direct and unflinching as Jeff’s films are in their depiction of the colonial violence wrecked on Canada’s Indigenous peoples, and crucial for their storytelling because of it, they are also, often surprisingly beautiful. Jeff’s mise-en-scène is lush, his artwork stunning, his sound design refined, his dialogue witty, his plots smart, his stories righteous, and his protagonists always, always brave, and with the courage to question themselves. There was, instead of pretence, a directness to the man and his work, yet as challenging as Jeff’s films and Jeff himself at times could be, there was a gentleness to be found beneath the surface.
Jeff never really left Dawson. He graduated and went on to earn his BFA at Concordia. He made several shorts and two feature films and traveled with them to festivals. He received awards and funding. He got married, had a child, wrote new screenplays, revised and rewrote them, gave talks and interviews, and pitches for new projects; but he always made a point of keeping in touch, stopping by to talk to students about the trials and tribulations, joys and sorrows of independent filmmaking. Last March, as a guest of the Decolonization and Indigenous Studies Certificate and The Dawson Horror Collective, he told students that they would walk away from Dawson better artists and better people. He felt he had. He should have told them that they could change Dawson and leave it a better place too. Jeff did. As he championed Dawson, we celebrated him. He was a remarkable filmmaker, a very good human and a loyal friend. He will be deeply mourned and sorely missed.
Jeff is survived by his wife, Sarah Del Seronde, a teacher in Cinema | Communications and his son Miles.
The Cinema|Communications Department will host a program of Jeff Barnaby’s films over the Winter semester and intends to create an award for Indigenous Students working in film in his honour.