Jeff Barnaby is the latest in a long line of Caandian filmmakers to make the leap from shorts to feature films. Barnaby, however, isn’t just like everyone else, and neither are his films. Rhymes for Young Ghouls, his first feature, won the Tribeca 2012 Creative Promise Award for Narrative, was produced in association with the Canadian Film Centre, and premiered at TIFF 2013.
The film tells the story of Aila, a girl living without parents on a reservation in the late ’60s. Her life consists of making enough money to pay an Indian Agent a truancy tax so she and her friends don’t have to go to the local residential school. For Barnaby, who both wrote and directed the film, the subject matter comes directly from his life, but also from his desire to create a better on screen representation of Native people.
Barnaby sat down with Toronto Film Scene to discuss his film in advance of its opening on Friday, January 31, 2014.
You’ve made a number of shorts. What was it about this story that made you want to make a feature?
I had been doing shorts for a while, and frankly had gotten kind of sick of them. So we had written, this was actually the third feature that I had written. I had written two others that are still floating around out there actually, and we were just ready to do it, I was just ready to do it years before and it just took some convincing on the part of Canadian funders to run with the type of films that I make.
I didn’t really have a particular idea. I’m a very emotional writer. I don’t sit down and say, alright let’s make a movie about residential schools. It was more the idea of just getting a certain mood right. The only thing that I had set out particularly to do was to write a lead protagonist as a woman because I find I’m horrible at writing women, so I wanted to challenge myself and make something that I wasn’t going to be comfortable with. And that’s really about it.
The one thing that stuck with me was this incident I had when I was a kid. I had a kind of drunken doofus in my life at the time and he had this habit of having me drive for him when he was drink and we just kind of plowed off this dude’s porch. So that image was where the opening came from and it was the first scene that I wrote. It was the opening and I knew I had to have this girl lose her mom and everything just kind of came together from there.
I actually never wanted to do a residential school film, like the old Ricky Gervais joke, if you want to win all the awards you do a Holocaust movie. I didn’t want to stand on the graves of all these dead Indians just to make my career have an interesting film at the sake of all these lives lost. So I think to undercut that I was going to do something that was hyperbolic. You’re going to look at it and you’re going to know that it’s a fiction film, so I think with that philosophy I was able to kind of forgive myself that one little trespass in terms of turning it into a residential school movie.
You mentioned you didn’t want to make an ‘issues movie’, but the film does seem to be being interpreted that way. How do you feel about that?
No, I mean, because I say I didn’t want to it to be an issues movie doesn’t preclude the idea that I didn’t think it was going to be one. I just didn’t want to emphasize the idea and turn it into an after school special. It could easily have gone that route.
It’s kind of interesting because we were doing trailers for the release and some of the trailers that we got back that’s what they turned it into – and after school special. I was mortified. Like, oh my God, what are you guys thinking?! And my focus was more on the humour, which I think is always tough to sell. Given the dark context in the film, I think it’s even that much harder.
So it doesn’t bother me at all that people are perceiving it as an issues movie or a protest film or anything like that. I think that was kind of ingrained in there already. And that kind of comes out in the writing anyway. I wouldn’t do it unless it had a kind of political bent to it. I just think once you put Indians on screen it kind of has that element to it already and you don’t need to kind of beat it to death.
I think that’s one of the shortcomings of some First Nations filmmaking or First Nations films is that they have a tendency to really almost make poverty porn or make preachy films that nobody wants to see. Whereas what we tried to do was to kind of make a rock n’ roll film and to make a film that was – I keep using the analogy Road House and Conan the Barbarian, those kind of films. Action movies. A town in need. A girl trying to find her soul. That kind of stuff. Young Devery Jacobs as my Patrick Swayze. So that’s the kind of philosophy we had towards the film.
I read an interview you did when the film was in casting and you said that non-Natives have a history of progression and success, and are fascinated by how we achieved it, which also includes a fascination with watching Native peoples pull themselves out of the rubble. You also said that as a filmmaker you feel like you’re part of that progression. Can you tell me how that informs your filmmaking?
It’s like a five hour discussion, really. But if you look at the history of film and the history of native people in film, it has a lot to do with where the self esteem and the self worth of native people are. Because historically being portrayed as villains in most films or if we’re not protesting, we’re participating in poverty porn and I think all of that is wrong. I think all of that is wrong. I think there’s people behind these icons, there’s people behind this iconography. Mi’kmaqs don’t wear headdresses. That speaks to the idea that we are separate people from Mohawks, or we’re separate people from Cree. We are individuals. I think that’s all Native people want is to be regarded as a culture unto itself and worthy of human respect. That’s it.
That seems to be a tall order for the majority of Canadians for some reason, whatever reason. You look at any article on CBC.ca pertaining to Natives and you look at the comments section where the anonymity really brings out the awfulness in people and you really get a sense of how racism is still quite well and alive in Canada and the ugliness is there.
I think what we’re tying to do, and I think it does it better than documentary, is kind of put the emotion behind those hateful words. There’s people on the other end that you’re destroying with your ideology. I think what I’m trying to do is make being Native okay again for Native people. I think one of the greatest things I was told by a young Native person was, “Thanks for making being Indian cool again.” I said, “That wasn’t me. It’s always been there. All I’m doing is turning a camera on. That’s it.” Everything that I’m about is where I’m from. All the talent that I have, if indeed I have any talent as a filmmaker, come from where I’m from, and that’s being Mi’kmaq.