Since the premiere of his debut feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, at TIFF this past year, filmmaker Jeff Barnaby has seen his profile grow greater and greater by the passing day. In addition to being selected for one of the world’s biggest festivals on his first attempt, Barnaby was shouted out at the awards brunch last year by Best Canadian Feature co-winner Shayne Ehman (one half of the duo who created Asphalt Watches) as the person who should have rightfully won. The film was selected to play TIFF’s Canada’s Top Ten, showcasing the ten best features produced within Canada in the last year. The same week as the Canada’s Top Ten screening, Barnaby was honoured by CFC founder Norman Jewison with a prize of $50,000 in film services in honour of the screen veteran winning the Toronto Film Critics Association Clyde Gilmour Award, the winner of which can give the prize to whomever they want.
And now just a few days after winning his most recent award and a couple of weeks prior to the release of his film (opening this Friday in Toronto at Cineplex Yonge and Dundas and February 14th in Vancouver), the Listujug, Quebec native is sitting on a couch in a lobby outside the screening room of a downtown Toronto hotel to chat about his hard to define debut. Part coal black comedy based somewhat upon his experiences growing up on a Mi’gmaq reservation, part revenge thriller, a 1970s period piece, and a scathing bit of social and political commentary that suggests that nothing ever really changes for the impoverished, it’s a brave and bracing bit of filmmaking.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls travels back to 1976 where a teenage girl named Aila (Canadian Screen Award Best Actress nominee Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs)living on the Red Crow Indian Reservation is caught in an increasingly bad situation during some of her most formative years. Dealing weed with her considerably shifty uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes) and her buddies to make ends meet and to bribe a local truancy officer (Mark Anthony Krupa) to keep them out of a deeply religious and terrifyingly abusive residential school, Aila also has to deal with the recent release of her father (Glen Gould) from prison. Her headstrong nature, her father’s guilt over the past, and the truant officer’s greed will send them all into a deadly cycle of revenge.
We talked to Barnaby about the film’s recent successes, the mundane nature of small town life that can lead some to less than exemplary behaviour, treating even his villains as humans, the mixed reaction the film has received within the native film community, and why it was a no brainer to use a female protagonist to tell a deeply personal story that stays true to his own experiences.
Dork Shelf: First of all and since I was there but didn’t get to say it to you then, congratulations on your latest bit of recognition from Norman Jewison at the Toronto Film Critics’ Awards.
Jeff Barnaby: (laughs) Thank you! We actually knew we were going to get the award beforehand, or else I wouldn’t be here right now. For me it was quite an honor to be up there and get this award from Don McKellar and Kim Cattrall, and that was something that I definitely didn’t see coming. I think most males between the ages of about 20 and 40 have been exposed to her work, or at least to Sex and the City. (laughs) Or at least through the girl I was dating I think I saw her at least 80 times. (laughs) But I am a huge fan of Kim Cattrall. And who doesn’t remember Porky’s? It was one of those times when I think I was the most star struck.
DS: I think one of the things that struck a chord with me was that despite the film taking place on a reservation and there being a lot of subtext and talk out in the open of the dangers of being marginalized and put upon, it’s also a very compelling and realistic kind of look at the sometimes seedier aspects of small town or rural life. Growing up I knew people a lot like Aila and especially people like Burner.
JB: I think there’s a real contingent of Canadians out there who do have that background; a blue collar background in a small town where there isn’t much else to do in your free time than smoke weed and drink. And for whatever reason, you don’t really see it a lot, and for some reason when you do see it, it ends up being in something like Corner Gas, you know what I mean? It’s been really sanitized for public consumption, and it kind of sucks because that’s kind of taken away that kind of cinema that we used to have that’s kind of rock and roll and has all this attitude, and you don’t really see that anymore. I mean, we have people like Egoyan and Cronenberg, who still make great films, but they’re still these very highly intellectual films that don’t appeal necessarily to the common man. That’s something that I really wanted to bring to the table. You know, that sense of “fuck all the bourgeois filmmakers, let’s get the blue collar guys back into it.” Because the guys I grew up around… Yeah, a lot of them are native, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t have a lot of non-native friends hanging around that weren’t in the same boat. I was just always in the right place at the right time to be able to see something like that.
I guess the only thing we could really liken something like this to would be something like The Trailer Park Boys, but even then it’s just so light and a specific kind of humor. It’s not really the same thing, plus when you get down to it there’s no real sense of a reason why these guys are the way they are. It’s kind of like an autonomous sense of the poverty around them. There’s no reason for it except to aid the punchlines. It’s just there, where I think in this film you get a sense of the history as to why things like residential schools and relocation have contributed to this poverty. You still don’t get any fingerpointing from us directly about it, but it makes for a great, evil foil for the story.
DS: And coming back to what you said about this kind of life being used more for jokes, certainly a character like Burner in something you just described would have been used as a comedic relief character. Here he’s still kind of a doofus and dipshit, but you know exactly why he acts the way he acts and that he’s a lot smarter than he looks.
JB: Yeah. And, I mean, everyone always talks about the work that Devery does because she gives such a great leading performance, but the subtleties that Brandon brings to his role are just amazing. Out of everybody on set, he surprised me the most because I knew the man forever. We had hung out before, and that isn’t to say that he doesn’t present himself the same way in real life, but he’s just such a nice guy. He wanted to be a hairdresser and all this stuff that you wouldn’t associate with him if you only knew him as Burner. He’s just a really soft spoken, really gentle kind of guy, and to see him kind of bring that performance to the screen as an immoral adult that knows exactly what he’s doing and he doesn’t care is really something to watch.
This is a character that has no need or desire to redeem himself in any way because he’s just so happy where he is. He gets annoyed by the idea that there will be people coming along to screw with that dynamic more so than anything going on with the residential school. The film even begins with him getting his ass kicked, and he just laughs it off. He just doesn’t care that there are consequences to his actions. He likes to get high, he likes to drink, he likes to party, he loves to chase women, and he loves to make money, and I have so many uncles like that. (laughs) It was my kind of tribute and salutation to that kind of a character.
DS: And that ties into one of the main themes of your film: people who do bad things for what they think are good reasons. All of the characters in this film, even the villain, are operating in survival mode. They are all doing whatever they think they need to in order to survive. They’ll interact with each other because for them there’s always a monetary reason for these people to talk to each other, but no one ever really wants to be around each other. No one really gets along perfectly even if they’re friends.
JB: Yeah, and you definitely get that sense with Mark’s character, Popper. There’s a line that I’m not even sure is in the final version of the film anymore where he says he’s “going to go blood simple like the natives,” which is something Continental Op says in (Dashell) Hammet’s Red Harvest. That idea behind that is just this kind of how this pervasive evil of residential schools takes its toll on humans, and not just natives. It is an institution with rules and regulations as to how they handle human beings within it. From that you get people like the goons –those guys who are just following orders – and people like Popper who have to enforce these orders.
There was actually at one point a huge backstory to Popper that never made it into the final film because I just never had the money to film all that stuff. It’s too bad because he was supposed to be a big part of this tragedy, a part of the innocence of childhood that gets tied up in this subjugation and this institution and what makes someone into a person capable of enforcing these subjugations. It’s a theme that gets a little bit lost in this shorter version of the film, I think. The earlier manifestations of the earlier drafts of the screenplay showed him as a young man getting dropped off at the church and growing up and getting abused for being the only white kid at the school and one of the few kids that doesn’t have any parents. He starts to find his voice in this realm of punishment where he can finally rise to some kind of power that he never had before and he refuses to let it go now. Looking inward you get the sense that he might want to, but he’s so caught up in this cycle of violence that he becomes this kind of self-eating monster.
DS: Popper definitely seems like a cog in a much bigger machine and a bigger system. The vibe I sort of got from the character in a lot of ways was kind of like an even more evil version of Al Pacino’s character in Donnie Brasco; the sort of mid-level guy who has just enough power to get drunk off of it, but who also has no hope of ever advancing within the system.
JB: Wow. That would have been a really great reference for Mark. I really wish I had thought of that at the time. (laughs) Because that is one of those things we really tried to instill in him, and I think that’s true. It’s like he almost wants to get caught, you know? In kind of that same way that a serial killer will start taking more risks in the hope that someone will stop him. At the end of the day, he probably doesn’t want to be this evil person anymore. One of the main ideas and main goals and one of the things I try to do as a director is to look at all these characters like they are humans first, especially the villains. It was kind of hard to do because I wrote him almost like this cartoonish, moustache twirling villain at first. There were all these subtleties that I do still wish that we had gotten across a bit better, but that leaves a lot more for the next one. (laughs)
DS: These are all people trying to move ahead in their own lives, and while it does become a revenge film, it’s a specific kind of take on revenge that shows just how messy and sloppy revenge can end up being. The plan of these kids to even break into the school and rob it still has numerous false starts before they can even get around to getting in the building.
JB: Yeah! It’s not Oldboy where there’s, like, a 15 to 20 year arc where there’s some rich guy manipulating this guy into eventually getting so broken down that he’ll bang his own daughter. It’s just a bunch of kids thinking they are playing a stupid joke that ends up turning into a horror show. At the end of the day, I think the moral of every revenge story is that no matter how good intentioned you think the revenge is, it will still destroy everything around you. It’s interesting that everyone looks upon Aila as a hero of this story, but they seem to neglect the idea that she ends up getting a lot of people around her hurt or even killed. I mean, Burner and her father and Popper have some culpability to that too, but she really isn’t morally much better off than any of them are in some ways.
DS: Her dad was gone for seven years and she’s really only going on what she knows that she’s learned from kind of hustling alongside Burner. That was her education, and that’s what she knows.
JB: Exactly. Ruthless, merciless, and driven towards a final goal.
DS: But when you put her in opposition to everyone around her, it’s easy to see why she’s the most easily identifiable and sympathetic one.
JB: That is true, too. (laughs)
DS: Even her so called friends are kind of knuckleheads that she can sort of control to some degree.
JB: Yeah. And those guys are kind of like littler Burner’s in-training.
DS: Well, why wouldn’t they really be if he’s the most successful guy there?
JB: It’s that line in the movie about the art of forgetfulness. That’s what they are training themselves to do: to forget where they come from, or more to the point, what’s happened to them. There’s a few conversations that didn’t end up in the film because of pacing issues and stuff like that involving them, too, and it’s so fascinating and sometimes weird to see how tragedy affects other people. One of the things that throws people off about the film is the humour with which these characters can deal with this tragedy. One of the lines that ended up getting cut was this brutal joke about child molestation that comes up after one of the kids says what will happen to them if they get caught. I mean, who else but someone in that situation would really laugh at that? These guys would, because if they don’t, they wouldn’t survive.
DS: Well, sometimes you have to laugh to keep from crying, and again that goes back to the small town mentality of having to find the bright spots wherever you can.
JB: That is true of all small towns in Canada where there isn’t anything to do. You would think something like the internet would make people much more aware or give people more to entertain themselves with, but all it really does is make you that much more aware of all the things that there ISN’T to do in your town. You might feel connected to something, but also that much more isolated at the same time.
DS: You’re a younger guy, so what was the inspiration to make this story a period piece?
JB: My past. My parents, my foster parents, my uncles. Growing up on these reserves, you’re already growing up in these really old houses, anyway. That isn’t the case so much anymore for the most part, but growing up you get a sense when you get on a reserve that evolution and technology stopped at some point. You’re still driving around in cars and living in houses that are from the 60s and 70s at best.
Ridley Scott made a great point when he was talking about Blade Runner. He said one of the things that always blows him away about science fiction was how everything always looked brand new and made right then and there in front of you, but if you look in someone’s house, everything is about ten or fifteen or twenty years old, or even further back.
DS: The house in the film also feels reminiscent of growing up in that it looks really well kept and put together on the outside, but inside it’s all untreated, unpainted lumber and plywood cabinets.
JB: (laughs) That really was this guy’s house. That was the find of the shoot because we had all these locations to shoot at and we needed one main place where we could shoot most of the movie. We ended up getting Burner’s house there, the old lady’s house, the treehouse, and of course the part outside where the car blows up. And to get it all from this one little compound was excellent because we didn’t have any money to build anything. The only thing out of the whole shoot that we actually built was the greenhouse where the old lady was working. We even used all the furniture that was there, so everything that was there was kind of a part of the set decoration. We didn’t put any of that up. It was just the house of this 60-year old guy who lives with his brother. It’s totally a GUY’S house. (laughs) It’s completely utilitarian; no accoutrements anywhere. Just a very straightforward, to-the-point kind of place. It was so serendipitous, man, because we never would have had the money to build that stuff.
And the thing is, once upon a time, reserves used to be even more destitute and poor, so you would think there would be all of these dilapidated houses available, but actually since the cigarette boom, most of those houses are gone, and the ones that are still there will for some reason have something like vinyl siding on them that just don’t have the same feel to them. To find that house was just great. And those guys who owned the house actually ended up in the movie! The last cop that you see in the film is the guy who owns the house. (laughs)
DS: I know that the film played at imagineNATIVE and it’s played at a few festivals now, and I know that the film the film has been seen by native audiences, but what has the reaction been like within the community? You are doing your own spin on a genre film, but you are also touching on things that people have had to live through and that people have very impassioned feelings about how it should be handled.
JB: It’s not universally praised, that’s for sure. I think when you start holding a microscope up to people and giving them a reason as to why they are behaving in a certain way, you are bound to receive some kind of resentment for that. It’s just like pulling off an intervention or something like that. You’re pointing out the character flaws that people won’t appreciate you for. Some people take offense to the smoking and the partying, but I know that still goes on a lot on my reserve. I’ve been to more than a few of these parties. (laughs) I think when you see yourself like that, it’s like that old line from Clockwork Orange where you’re not getting at what’s real until you’re seeing it on the screen. I think that’s a bit of the mixed reaction that I get sometimes, and it comes from that kind of resentment.
I never had a really great relationship within the native film industry to begin with, probably because these are the kinds of films I make. I think you’ll hear this from any kind of ethnic filmmaker, which is that you kind of get pressured to portray your ethnicity with all the positivity you can because in the brains of most people, it’s that positivity that they want to see.
DS: Or they would want to subconsciously see it as being horrendously stereotyped in the other direction. That kind of psychology goes in more than one direction.
JB: Well, I was making this from a perspective where I was being honest with my own experiences. I wasn’t really trying to hold up a light to anybody. That stuff just happens, and hopefully it will age well, but I know a lot of people who didn’t appreciate it. It didn’t win at imagineNATIVE as the best feature there. It actually went to a non-native woman [Australian Catriona McKenzie for Satellite Boy, see comments section below for a clarification from the imagineNATIVE programing team – ED.], and ultimately I think it was because of how we portrayed our characters. A lot of people said we portrayed them too negatively, and I’m like, “What the fuck is that?” First of all, it’s fiction. To suggest that this film is an active and accurate portrayal of anything is crazy. Second, I am being honest to my own experience. Third, presenting a positive image of people with a tragic past to suggest that we’ve gotten over all of this, who would you really help with that? Are you helping the people who WANT you to get over it, or are you helping the people who are still going through it. To sit there and say that the whole residential school thing was slipped under the rug and all of that bullshit and to suddenly say “Oh, we have money and we’re all good now” is just positively demented.
DS: It goes back to that plausible deniability and the art of forgetting that you are trying to get at in the film.
JB: And cognitive dissonance, too.
DS: And it’s the same kind of feeling that I think can be dangerous whenever people try to critique a work like this, which would be to automatically assume that all experiences within a social system would be the exact same. It’s the same kind of thinking that leads to people who think Wolf of Wall Street is terrible because it’s glorifying that specific person’s existence.
JB: But that’s the culture! That’s cinema! It’s been glorifying things forever. It’s been glorifying guns. It’s been glorifying sex. It glorifies women. It’s the nature of the beast and you can do what you can to change it, but if you don’t like it, we live in society where you can opt out of anything you don’t want to be a part of. I’m not going to bend your fucking ear and subject you to something you don’t want to be subjected to, you know?
DS: This isn’t Clockwork Orange.
JB: Exactly! It’s insane sometimes how people can react to films and ignore the reality of their situation.
DS: Finally, what made you want to make your protagonist in this story a young woman, especially when you are basing a lot of the characters off your own experiences?
JB: Well, I was raised predominantly by native women, and I sat down and thought to myself “Alright, I am going to put this character through hell,” and who better to personify that strength while going through hell in their own lives than the women I watched in my own life go through tough times and come out looking stronger for it. Really it was just a matter of just making the decision of making a female protagonist, and all of the material that I needed for that character was embedded in my brain from the people I grew up around: my stepmother, my mom, my sisters, my wife. They all personify the different kinds of strength that this characters has: the physical strength, the mental strength, the emotional strength, the ability to tolerate any kind of pain and turn it into something that makes them stronger and keeps them moving forward.
It wasn’t a hard decision at all, because for me the very epicentre and power of First Nations people comes from the strength of its women. Not everyone might agree with that, but it’s not like that traditional male role model of someone who hunts and picks is even there anymore. Whereas, the traditional female role of someone who cares and nurtures and is a carrier of language and tradition has endured and is still more or less intact and only getting stronger. Sadly, I think that’s why you see more and more broken native men than native women. They will stay strong for their children and will preserve a lot more of the old ideals from native culture. They have been able to somehow endure and adapt to a culture that often times seems like they don’t want them in it. To me, that’s the character description of Aila to a T.
All I had to do was come up with the scenes and the interactions and everything else was already there. When I was writing it, it was like I was her. It was so easy to put myself in that place. My wife just had a baby and I watched her go through this long, hard labour, and it just reinforced everything that I had thought about native women. I find a lot of strength from creating a character like that and how it informs those around her. As a father, I look at my own child and I just pray that I don’t fuck it up. I’ve seen so many other native men fuck it up, and I was just scared and horrified, and if something happens to my wife and I am stuck by myself raising my son, I wouldn’t know what I would do. If something happens to me, I know my son will be fine. If something happens to my wife, who knows what could happen?