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Blood Quantum injects zombie horror genre with an Indigenous perspective


Telling original, Indigenous-focused stories in different genres, filmmaker Jeff Barnaby is helping to normalize the presence of Indigenous people in a variety of realms: horror, science fiction and the broader cultural world.

Writer-director Jeff Barnaby's second feature film Blood Quantum stars (from left) Forrest Goodluck, Michael Greyeyes and Kiowa Gordon as a family fighting to protect their isolated Mi'kmaw reserve of Red Crow during a zombie outbreak.(Elevation Pictures)

Ravenous hordes, buckets of blood and a world where being Indigenous equals immunity as zombies overtake the world: Jeff Barnaby's Blood Quantum puts a distinctive twist on a genre that won't stay dead.

And it makes complete sense, according to star Michael Greyeyes, whose previous credits include a recurring role on the TV zombie series Fear the Walking Dead.

Beyond the fact that there are many Indigenous fans of zombie tales, his community knows only too well what it feels like to fight against annihilation, he said.

"We're survivors. We totally get it …. Who would be the best survivor in an actual apocalypse? Us," Greyeyes noted during the Toronto International Film Festival, recounting a sentiment shared with him by a fellow Indigenous actor and friend.

"We actually lived through the apocalypse: the colonial settler state is another kind of apocalypse for us. And we're here."

A fisherman makes an unsettling discovery in Jeff Barnaby's Blood Quantum.

An Indigenous man discovers something sinister happening in the community of Red Crow, in Jeff Barnaby's new film Blood Quantum.0:55

Indigenous people today continue to live "with the daily reality of state-sanctioned systemic violence," added co-star Elle-Maija Tailfeathers.

"Zombie apocalypse or not, our realities wouldn't be all that different, which I think says a lot."

By telling original, Indigenous-focused stories in different genres, Barnaby is part of a wave of creators normalizing the presence of Indigenous people in the realms of horror, science fiction and the broader cultural world, said Greyeyes.

"You look at books, like Cherie Dimaline

, and all these creators making art right now from an Indigenous perspective …. They're hijacking every genre, every form, to tell our stories. It's exciting."

Blood Quantum stars (from left) Goodluck, Elle-Maija Tailfeathers and Greyeyes, helped unveil the zombie horror movie at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, where it opened the Midnight Madness program.(CBC)

Though Barnaby said he "flirted" with genre elements in his feature film debut, the 2013 drama Rhymes for Young Ghouls, in the Quebec-shot Blood Quantum, he gloriously dives right into the gory zombie style ("There is a fire hose, actually," he says of one gushing, bloody scene in particular).

The outspoken Mi'kmaw filmmaker also doesn't pull his punches story-wise, centring the tale on Indigenous protagonists grappling with offering refuge to the dangerous, non-Indigenous "townies" seeking their protection.

"I don't want to make obscure, social commentary films that nobody sees. I kind of want to make blockbusters that have core messages," Barnaby said.

"Art, in general, is a great platform to take a lot of ugliness in humanity and present it in a way that's palatable."

Rather than being turned off by this, Barnaby sees an audience hungry for a new perspective.

"You have a new generation of filmgoers and young people who want to see these messages in their films. They want to see more representation. My ideas are landing in a perfect time period … I think this is the time and the climate to start having these ideas in here."

'I don't want to make obscure, social commentary films that nobody sees. I kind of want to make blockbusters that have core messages,' says Barnaby.(Alice Hopton/CBC)

Though he's had his share of having to convince the establishment to fund his ideas, as a Quebec-based writer and director, Barnaby acknowledges that he's been lucky to benefit from industry support and expertise that not all of his Indigenous filmmaking peers elsewhere in Canada can access.

And while he thinks Canada's film system needs to put more power into the hands of actual Indigenous filmmakers when choosing to fund Indigenous-themed projects, "there is definitely a shift toward supporting Native film," Barnaby said.

It's a development that galvanizes his Blood Quantum cast.

"Indigenous people are getting ahold of the camera, and I think that's so important," said Forrest Goodluck.

"They're just making the films that they would want to see."

Blood Quantum is set for release in 2020.

About the Author

Jessica Wong is the longtime online arts and entertainment writer for CBC News.

With files from CBC's Eli Glasner and Nigel Hunt

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