October 13, 2022 Montreal, Quebec - Acclaimed filmmaker Jeff Barnaby passed away after a year-long battle with cancer. Jeff was born and raised on the Mi’gmaq community of Listuguj. He spent his adult life living in Montreal, Quebec and is survived by his wife Sarah Del Seronde and son Miles. He was 46.
Jeff Barnaby redefined Indigenous cinema by injecting elements of magic realism, body horror, and sci-fi into Indigenous stories. He never would have called his films Indigenous Futurism, but his films invented the genre. George Stroumboulopoulos once called Jeff’s work “Bare Knuckle Cinema”, as apt a description if there ever was one.
Jeff Barnaby’s passion for film was ignited from the time he was a child, relishing in horror and sci-fi films he watched with his brothers. Early influences ranged from David Cronenberg’s Rabid to films Conan the Barbarian, Bladerunner, Predator, and the Quebecois classic Léolo. Jeff’s gift for filmmaking solidified when he moved to Montreal to attend Dawson College and later Concordia University's Cinema Program. From the beginning, Jeff’s vision and his groundbreaking stories were rooted in his experience growing up in Gespe’gewa’gi.
Jeff strived to highlight the cosmology of the Mi’gmaq language in his body of work. 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.”
Jeff wrote, directed, and edited all his film, starting with his first short film From Cherry English (2004), which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival, followed by The Colony (2007), which premiered at TIFF and was later selected as one of TIFF’s Top Ten. File Under Miscellaneous (2010) won several prizes including 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.
In his debut feature film, the visionary Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), Jeff provided a scathing indictment of Canada’s Residential School system, wrapped in a revenge story set on the fictional Red Crow reserve. 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. Notably, the film launched the career of Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs (Reservation Dogs, Echo), who remained one of Jeff’s dear friends. Rhymes for Young Ghouls was nominated and won multiple awards, including Best Canadian First Feature at VIFF, and the Vancouver Film Critics Best Canadian Director Award. Norman Jewsion received the Toronto Film Critics Association Clyde Gilmour Award and paid it forward to Jeff based on his success with Rhymes for Young Ghouls in 2013.
Jeff’s sophomore feature film, Blood Quantum (2019), is a raucous Zombie film and critique of colonialism where Indigenous peoples are immune to the zombie plague. It was nominated for 10 Canadian Screen Awards and won 6, as well as being nominated for 5 IRIS awards. The film was originally conceived in 2007 but it would take 12 years to put the project together. The award-winning film was inspired by horror masters like John Carpenter and George Romero and most importantly by Alanis Obomoswain’s Incident at Restigouche which was shot on Jeff’s home reserve when he was 4 years old. It was a film that touched him deeply. Due to COVID-19, the theatrical release of Blood Quantum was forced to pivot to a streaming release. The film was sold to over 30 territories around the world, and Jeff took great pride in knowing that his people and his language were represented in such far off countries as Japan, Germany, France, Italy, Laos, and South Korea.
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.
Jeff loved music, and created the soundtracks to his films. He’d often compose on the fly, playing guitars, banjos, synths, drums and whatever instrument may have been required. As a blues fan, Jeff had a love for the likes of Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, and tried to include their work in his films whenever he could.
Jeff could at times be seen as an outsider and yet was supported in his work because of his mastery. He was uncompromising in his views on Indigenous identity, Indigenous storytelling and authenticity. He never hesitated or backed down from his point of view, and remained authentic throughout his career. He valued honesty. Jeff was recently quoted in a Canadian Press interview as saying, “It’s not everybody that can say, ‘I’ve only worked on my own material and I’ve only committed myself to Indigenous storytellers or Indigenous stories.’ I can say that.”
Jeff’s friends have shared the following statements:
Friend & producer John Christou writes:
“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. My love and deepest condolences go out to Sarah and Miles.”
Friend & actor Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs writes:
“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.
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 loved his wife Sarah and his son Miles ferociously, and would jump at every opportunity to tell me as such. And despite having a challenging upbringing, Jeff harboured deep love for his family and for his community, Listuguj. My heart goes out to each of them, as they send Jeff on his journey back to the ancestors.
I am filled with tremendous gratitude for having known him and for having been part of his life. His loss is felt so deeply.”