Acclaimed Mi'kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby dead at 46

Representatives say Mi'kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, who helped shape modern Indigenous cinema with movies like Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum, has died at age 46 after a battle with cancer.

Representatives say acclaimed director of Rhymes for Young Ghouls, Blood Quantum died of cancer

A man sits in front of a microphone, with the partially blurred word "TIFF" visible on a blue wall behind him. He is smiling.
Director Jeff Barnaby speaks during a press conference at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Sept. 6, 2013. The celebrated filmmaker, whose Rhymes for Young Ghouls and Blood Quantum helped define modern Indigenous cinema, has died. (Galit Rodan/The Canadian Press)

Mi'kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, considered a visionary of modern Indigenous cinema, has died.

The director's representatives say he died after a yearlong battle with cancer. He was 46. 

Raised on the Listuguj Reserve in Quebec, Barnaby helmed many short films, including the Jutra Award-nominated The Colony and the Genie-nominated File Under Miscellaneous.

The writer-director, who continued to be based in Montreal during much of his career, gained acclaim for his 2013 debut feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls. The film criticized Canada's residential school system in a way that hadn't been widely seen in cinema before. Set in the 1970s, it also reminded audiences that the events it depicted were not ancient history.

Barnaby followed up Ghouls with the 2019 zombie horror film Blood Quantum, which swept the Canadian Screen Awards, winning six out of its 10 nominations — the most of any film at the awards that year. It featured a cast that was nearly all Indigenous and took Barnaby more than 13 years from conception to debut.

From left, Forrest Goodluck, Michael Greyeyes and Kiowa Gordon appear in a scene from Jeff Barnaby's film Blood Quantum. (Elevation Pictures)

"In qualified and political terms, it's 100 per cent a Native zombie exploitation film," Barnaby said in a 2020 interview with CBC. 

Blood Quantum depicted a zombie outbreak on a fictional Mi'kmaq reserve. Though it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2019, its theatrical release was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic and it was instead released on streaming services in 2020. 

"People keep calling it a pressing film with all of the stuff happening now because of the virus," Barnaby said of the movie, which loosely paralleled the ongoing pandemic. "Meanwhile Native people have been putting up with it forever."

Friends share sorrow, praise

Friends and contemporaries shared their sorrow soon after news of his death broke. 

"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," friend and actor Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs was quoted as saying in a media release. 

Jacobs — who currently stars in the Taika Waititi-created series Reservation Dogs and who will appear in the upcoming Marvel series Echo — starred in Rhymes for Young Ghouls.

In the release, she went on to say she "wouldn't be an actor today" without the influence of Barnaby, whose films "resonated with audiences Indigenous and non-Native alike."

On Twitter, Toronto International Film Festival CEO Cameron Bailey described Barnaby as an "artist powered by a blazing fire," who "understood horror on its deepest levels."

"Canadian cinema was better for having his talents, passion and vision," said actor and writer Jay Baruchel in his own post.

And fellow Canadian screenwriter and director Jason Eisener shared that Barnaby "was incredibly talented with a strong inspirational voice."

Barnaby is survived by his wife, Sarah Del Seronde, and son, Miles.


Jackson Weaver is a senior writer for CBC Entertainment News. You can reach him at jackson.weaver@cbc.ca, or follow him on Twitter at @jacksonwweaver

With files from The Canadian Press