‘Uncompromising’ Indigenous filmmaker Jeff Barnaby dies at 46

A man in a red T-shirt and blue hoodie stands with hands clasped, looking at the camera.
Director Jeff Barnaby at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2013.
(Larry Busacca/Getty Images)

Writer-director Jeff Barnaby, who established himself as one of the leading lights of modern Indigenous cinema with the films “Rhymes for Young Ghouls” and “Blood Quantum,” has died at age 46.

Barnaby died Thursday in Montreal after a yearlong battle with cancer, according to his publicist.


Born and raised on a Mi’gmaq reservation in Quebec, Canada, Barnaby drew on his roots for his work, as well as his love of horror luminaries like Stephen King, Clive Barker and David Cronenberg, injecting Indigenous-centered narratives with elements of body horror, science fiction and magical realism. Though he made only two feature films, Barnaby earned considerable acclaim for redefining expectations of what an Indigenous film could be and expanding opportunities for Indigenous actors.

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“Jeff Barnaby’s films changed Canada, and played an outsize role in advancing the cultural and political imperative to reconcile with Indigenous peoples,” Barnaby’s friend and producer John Christou, with whom he worked on several films, wrote in a statement. “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.”

After earning attention with a string of shorts, the Montreal-based Barnaby made his feature debut with the 2013 drama “Rhymes for Young Ghouls.”

Set in 1976 against the backdrop of Canada’s abusive residential schools, institutions of assimilation for which the government has since apologized, the film starred Devery Jacobs, who went on to break out with roles in the Starz series “American Gods” and FX’s dramedy hit “Reservation Dogs.”

“I wouldn’t have a career today if it wasn’t for Jeff and for that project,” Jacobs told The Times in 2020. “‘Rhymes’ was my first leading role and also the first role I could really sink my teeth into, and the first project that really reflected my experience and that of my family.”

A man and woman huddle in the corner of a room, looking over their shoulders.
Forrest Goodluck and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers in “Blood Quantum.”

In 2020, working with his biggest budget yet, Barnaby made a splash with the zombie horror movie “Blood Quantum,” which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was released via streaming on Shudder.

Shot in Canada on Mohawk and Mi’gmaq land, the film chronicles a zombie outbreak on a First Nations reservation. Though the residents of the fictional Red Crow Reserve are immune to the zombie virus due to their heritage, they must still grapple with its impact on the world around them, as outsiders seek refuge from the rising undead plague.

Earlier this year, Barnaby nodded to the influence of King’s horror novel “The Stand” on the film. “‘The Stand’ helped me survive my adolescence,” Barnaby wrote on Twitter, where he was outspoken in his support of Indigenous representation. “Years later, while writing my short story, I used ‘The Stand’ as an inspiration for an immunity in the apocalypse narrative ‘Blood Quantum.’ King also gave us the first Mi’gmaq burial ground zombie in ‘Pet Sematary.’ ”

Two men sit at microphones for a film festival session.
Director Jeff Barnaby, left, and actor Glen Gould of “Rhymes For Young Ghouls” speak onstage at the ‘First Peoples Cinema’ press conference at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival.
(George Pimentel / WireImage)

Drawing its title from blood quantum laws used in the U.S. and Canada to determine Indigenous ancestry, the film combined familiar tropes of horror — ravenous flesh-eaters, buzzing chainsaws — with sharp sociopolitical commentary on the history of colonialism.

“The weird thing about being Native and making a comment on viruses in particular is the history of the pandemics and the colonization of America,” Barnaby told The Times in 2020.

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“Once you put a Native person in a zombie film, you immediately start thinking that it’s a virus. It’s one of the benefits of being a Native film director: You have so much history to riff on. It exists in history and in our society and in the history of our cinema and literature.… It’s so much to unpack. It’s a lot to take on, being a native filmmaker, man.”

On Thursday, as news of Barnaby’s death spread on social media, Toronto International Film Festival co-director Cameron Bailey wrote on Twitter, “We should have had so many more films from Jeff Barnaby. ‘Rhymes for Young Ghouls,’ ‘Blood Quantum’ and his short films showed an artist powered by a blazing fire. He understood horror on its deepest levels. Such a shock.”

Barnaby is survived by his wife Sarah and his son Miles.

Staff writer Jen Yamato contributed to this report.