The dead are rising outside the isolated Mi’gmaq reserve of Red Crow, in First Nations filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s sophomore feature BLOOD QUANTUM. While the Indigenous inhabitants are immune to the zombie plague, Traylor (Michael Greyeyes), the tribal sheriff, must protect his son’s pregnant girlfriend, the refugees, and reserve riffraff from the hordes of walking white corpses.


In conversation with FRIGHTFEST, Barnaby debunked the romanticised notions of the filmmaking process, his observation of European indifference towards Native suffering, and how the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the politics of his film. 


FRIGHTFEST: Would you agree that filmmaking is a process of discovery, in which you have three versions of the film – the film that you write, the film that you shoot, and the film that you edit?


JEFF BARNABY: It’s easy to almost look at it that romantically, but it’s a lot more complicated than that because what’s being left out is matching your ideas to a budget. There’s no reason why you need a gazillion dollars to do a feature, so you need to start to find cheaper ways to produce the same ideas [laughs]. I’ve heard that so many times, but I think a film manifests through effort, time and money management. The things you’re talking about are almost luxuries because it’s a simplistic way of talking about the million different variables that come at you as a director, writer and editor. If you’re occupying all of these roles, you exist in almost three spaces temporally: ‘Okay I have to write this down, then I’ve got to direct it and then I’ve got to think about how I’m going to edit it somewhere down the road.’ So it’s not something that happens as you build the film, it’s something that’s continually happening throughout the process.


FF: What is the reality beneath this romanticised idea?


JB: I was still writing stuff for the film three weeks before the film opened because I was having issues with the music, and I was also the music supervisor, so that was my problem. It was constantly evolving, and the picture lock for us was a moving target. It becomes almost a game of Jenga where you’re trying to move stuff while you keep the entire film intact. It’s not that you make the film three times, you start making the film, and the tower is standing at the end, or it isn’t [laughs].


Getting to that finish line is a constant ongoing battle, and it’s the same for anybody because one of the things I love about being a filmmaker is that it is never the same thing twice - every day is a new adventure. If you have a particular personality that craves problems to solve (finding a nice way to put it), then I think filmmaking is for you, and that’s why I love it.


I sit there, and I plan stuff, and that’s the first thing that gets tossed out the window the second you step onto the set. You have to think on your feet, and when you’re shooting outside or at night, you’re dealing with unpredictable things like nature and sunlight. It was quite a scene making this film, and I wouldn’t be able to just qualify it as a simple, “You make the film three times.” It’s hard to sit here and qualify it as any one thing, but what I know for sure is that this film more than anything else in my life has prepared me to be a filmmaker. RHYMES FOR YOUNG GHOULS was my first feature, but there weren’t nearly as many gags – there were some, but it wasn’t nearly as complicated as this where every scene affected it.



FF: A filmmaker once commented to me that it’s crucial that everyone can see themselves represented onscreen. Horror is considered to have a broad appeal, but how would you compare the response to a film set on the Mi’gmaq Reserve, from both the North America and European audience?


JB: The politics are specific to Canada but relatable in the US, and completely foreign in the UK and Europe, which is weird because it deals specifically with colonisation. It’s funny to think that the colonising countries have very little if any idea about their history. I can’t speak for them honestly because I’ve never talked to anybody who has attended school in Europe, but once I had a conversation when I was in university with a nice lady putting up an art installation. She was maybe from Germany, and we got around to, “Where are you from?” I said, “From a little reserve out in...” and she asked, “What’s a reserve?” “Well, it’s where the government decided to put all the Indians when they wanted to get them out of the way.” She had no idea about that, and one step further to give you an idea of what the concept of native Americans in Europe is, she had no idea that native people were still alive, and I’ve experienced that too.


We went to Clermont-Ferrand Film Festival with THE COLONY, and I shocked the audience talking about some of the ideas behind that short film. They had no idea about the genocide that went on in North America - I don’t know-how. I guess the average person doesn’t care and I don’t know if they just thought white people grew out of the ground [laughs], that they just appeared.


When it plays in Europe people are appreciative, but more along the lines of a zombie film, and that’s what we designed it as so that even if you don’t know the politics, you can appreciate it because of the chainsaws and crazy weapons. We were still trying to make a geeky zombie film, and so that’s the experience we predominantly got. People didn’t react to it the way they’re reacting to it now, because the virus happened in those six months between the release at TIFF and then the release on Shudder.


FF: It has been said that a film doesn’t exist in a vacuum. How has the pandemic influenced the reception of BLOOD QUANTUM?


JB: What the virus did was it exacerbated all the politics in the film, and if you’re making a social commentary about colonialism, you’re making it about capitalism. And when you talk about the colonisation of America, you’re talking about murdering people for the sake of building capitalism. And when you talk about sending people out to work amidst the virus, you’re talking about killing people for capitalism. All of a sudden, those parallels started taking off, and it became apparent what I was talking about the whole time.


Whereas native culture has a long and sordid, ugly history with viruses, white people do not, not at least that they can remember. Now you’re starting to see those politics being exacerbated by the virus, and you’re starting to see an audience that is more receptive to the politics and understand them better. So that’s what happened between the release at TIFF and then the release on Shudder.


FF: There is also the idea that a film presents as being about one subject, theme or idea, yet it will be about something else. Would you agree?


JB: The politics in the film are not talking about colonisation; they’re talking about capitalism. When you go back and rewatch the opening scene, if you look right across the Red Crow Reservation, you’ll see on the water a mill. Then you go further across, and you see this burnt down old structure that the old man carves his fish by, and that too was a former industrial complex. Then you cut to the animation sequence, and if you didn’t see those beats of all of that industry surrounding this native man fishing, we burned it into the screen with an animation sequence showing that same environment, the pollution of the water, then the woman and the land - then you see the zombie outbreak. I don’t think you see those beats as clearly if you’re looking at it as just a straight zombie film or just another political film. It’s harder to dismiss it coming from a native voice because you know that voice experienced it all, and there’s authenticity.


BLOOD QUANTUM is streaming now on Shudder in the UK, Eire and the U.S.


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