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Decolonization Through Fiction: Indigenous Horror in Canada

For a long time, North American cinema was largely synonymous with Hollywood-made films. However, in the past few decades, independent filmmakers and festivals, such as Sundance and Toronto, have received a significant amount of public attention. Canadian Indigenous films represent a new distinctive branch of independent North American cinema. While many documentaries on the life of First Nations were shot in the second part of the 20th century, they failed to depart from the colonial, Eurocentric narrative.

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The new wave of Canadian Indigenous directors, on the other hand, is eager to experiment with genres, offering a different perspective on the history of the Americas and the struggles of the Natives. Indigenous horror, in particular, exposes the issues of colonialism and intolerance in society through the prism of the Indigenous narrative. Therefore, the horror genre is effectively reinvented in Indigenous filmmakers’ work, becoming the viable tool of cultural critique and social protest in modern Canada.

Indigenous film crews have been a part of the Canadian film scene since the 1960s when the first documentary on the life of First Nations was produced. However, since then, most films about Indigenous cultures have been made by non-natives (Santoro 267). Santoro states that these films “are predicated on the presumed inability of Indigenous people to portray their lives and concerns in an effective way, and the need for outside intervention to draw attention to their issues” (268). Even if they tried to address some of the issues First Nations had faced for centuries, these documentaries were filmed from a Eurocentric, colonial perspective. Representation of Indigenous people in fiction cinema has not been very different. Jeff Barnaby, a Canadian director, states that stories of Native Americans in films like Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, or Avatar are based on the “white guilt stereotype of Indians” (Santoro 272).

In other words, these films tell the story of the mistakes white people made, with Indigenous people being the object rather than the subject. Overall, these examples show how Native Americans in North America were effectively robbed of their voice in cinema for decades.

Creating a truly multicultural society is an extremely challenging task, considering the fact that the Western narrative in Canada has not been contested for centuries. According to Knopf, Indigenous artists, writers, and filmmakers must take full control over the production and distribution of their art (18). While even 50 years ago, it would be difficult to imagine something like that happening, in the past few decades, the situation has been slowly changing.

New Indigenous filmmakers started exploring the pressing issues of identity crisis and language loss in their films. Works like Snare and This River Is a Woman have drawn public attention to the problem of violence towards Indigenous women in Canada (Brady 920). The critical success of Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner signaled the beginning of a new era in Canadian fiction cinema (Santoro 268). While not many feature-length films have been released so far, Indigenous filmmakers are slowly but steadily creating an anti-colonial narrative that questions the very structure of Canadian society. Horror films, in particular, might represent this tendency the best.

While documentary films aim to exactly recreate the events of the past, horror blurs the line between fiction and reality, using pathos rather than logos to reach the audience. Baudemann argues that “as man-made horrors transcend what the human mind is capable of comprehending, resorting to art might remain as the only means of making sense” (156). Hence, Indigenous horror aims to reach the audience through the transcendent experience it creates. The work of Jeff Barnaby, one of the prominent Indigenous Canadian filmmakers, is a perfect example of this concept brought to life.

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Barnaby, a Mi’gmaq director from Quebec, is well known for his work in the horror genre. He started working in the industry in the early 2000s, creating several short films, all exploring the issue of identity crisis faced by Indigenous people (Santoro 272). Unlike many other Indigenous directors, Barnaby is not afraid to show negative, marginalized aspects of life in the Native communities. He draws upon his own experiences, classic horror films, and other works by Indigenous filmmakers to show how colonial legacy affects the lives of the Native Americans today (Santoro 273). According to Santoro, “Barnaby uses the exaggerated conventions of horror films to expose the real horror of what many natives combat every day” (274).

In his latest feature film, Blood Quantum, Barnaby employs the genre of zombie horror to draw public attention to Indigenous people’s problems. In one of the interviews, Barnaby stated that “everybody loves a good zombie film and this is going to help people talk about the context a little bit more” (Ahearn). Like other directors of the new generation, he realizes that reaching a larger audience is critical for the Indigenous narrative to be heard.

In all his works, Barnaby contests the traditional horror narrative created by Western filmmakers. In American horror films, white protagonists are often haunted by the ancestors of Native Americans (Elliott). Overall, the colonial narrative exploits the topic of Indigenous genocide to entertain the audience (Elliott). Elliott adds that “fictitious white women in horror movies are almost always considered innocent by viewers; Indigenous men are not, no matter the circumstances.” Hence, classic horrors follow the dichotomy of colonial narrative, drawing the line between “self” and “other”, where Indigenous people are always given the role of the “other”.

In Blood Quantum, Barnaby makes a pun about this division in a story told by a white police officer, who mentions “a lady from our side of the line” (Blood Quantum 00:17:50-00:17:51). Interestingly, this phenomenon also exists in Barnaby’s work, but the whites represent “the other”, while Indigenous people are in the center of the story. Barnaby shows that they are the real victims, the ones who experience the horror of losing their identity, their land, and their rights. Hence, he tries to reverse the process of cultural colonization by giving a voice to his community.

The name of Barnaby’s second feature film, Blood Quantum, refers to discriminatory Canadian law implemented in the 19th century. According to this statute, “the only people eligible to be considered Indian were those who had at least one-quarter Indian blood” (Lawrence 9).

The ones who did not qualify could not live in the reservations. Following the implementation of the law, thousands of Native Americans had to leave their communities because they lost their “Indian” status (Lawrence 9). In the film, “blood quantum” separates Indigenous people from non-natives, with only the latter being vulnerable to the zombie plague. However, for Barnaby, there are no “half-breeds”; all people who have a drop of Native blood in their veins are immune to zombies.

At first glance, the plot of Blood Quantum does not seem highly original, as it revolves around a zombie invasion. Hordes of the undead attack and bite people, who inevitably turn into zombies as well. Indigenous people are the only ones with immunity to the bites, making their reservation a safe haven.

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Barnaby obviously refers to the fact that millions of Native Americans died from the diseases European colonists brought to the Americas. However, in his film, the roles are swapped, and the whites are the ones who have no immunity to the virus. Rather than retelling the well-known story of the Great Dying of the Indigenous Peoples of the Americas, Barnaby turns it upside down, forcing the viewers to put themselves in the Natives’ shoes. Thus, he achieves something that would not be possible for a documentary genre. Following Baudemann’s idea, he resorts to art as a means of making sense.

Barnaby does not want the audience to passively witness the hardships Native Americans had to face throughout history because that is something that the whites have been doing for centuries. Instead, he strives to put them through the actual horror of being an Indigenous person in colonial America. Arguably, such a transcendent experience can have a more profound influence on the viewers than any logical arguments presented in a documentary film.

In horror films, reality and fiction are often closely intertwined, making the experience more relatable. Blood Quantum is not an exception, as Barnaby strives to portray Indigenous society in detail and without bias. His critique of his community is as fierce as his critique of colonialism. Problems with alcohol, drugs, and teen pregnancy are issues that he explores in the film. The themes of self-destruction and lack of ambition among Indigenous people is present throughout Barnaby’s work (Santoro 274).

In Blood Quantum, Lysol, the Chief’s son, triggers the disastrous chain of events leading to the destruction of the reservation. It is important to note that despite Barnaby’s critique of colonialism, the main antagonist is a Native American. Hence, he remains loyal to his anti-colonial narrative, in which only the actions of the members of the Indigenous community truly matter. He believes that only Native Americans have the right to determine their future, no matter how tragic it could be.

While Barnaby is not afraid to criticize his community, it would be incorrect to assume that he blames Indigenous people for their deeds. On the contrary, his Indigenous anti-heroes are a product of a colonial system. Lysol, the main antagonist in Blood Quantum, is violent, unpredictable, and addicted to drugs and alcohol. However, halfway through the film, it becomes clear that when his mother died, his father sent him to foster care.

It is important to note that this topic is very personal for Barnaby, as he had to go through the Canadian foster care system himself (Gittings 229). Gittings describes the state-sponsored foster care in Canada as “genocidal”, adding that hundreds of Native American children died throughout the years in the system (229). When speaking of Lysol’s time in foster care, his brother says, “who knows what happened to him there” (Blood Quantum 00:45:48-00:45:53). Therefore, Barnaby hints at physical, mental, or even sexual abuse Lysol might have experienced during his childhood. From the villain, he becomes yet another victim of the oppressive colonial regime.

As the film progresses, the line between fiction and reality becomes increasingly blurry. In one of the key final scenes, Barnaby erases it completely. When the undead take over, and the remaining members of the community are forced to flee, the oldest one makes a conscious choice to stay. In his last words to his grandson, he tells him, “I am not leaving this land again” (Blood Quantum 01:26:52-01:26:56).

His words do not make sense within the context of the film, as he has never left his community. The only possible explanation is that Barnaby wants him to represent the generations of Indigenous people who were displaced and robbed of their land in real Canada. Thus, he offers the audience the key to the concept of the film, showing them that the horror on their screens is merely a reflection of the horrors of real life.

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Jeff Barnaby and other Indigenous directors prove that fiction cinema can be an essential tool of cultural decolonization. The horror genre, in particular, offers a different perspective on the traumatic experiences of the First Peoples. The popularity of the genre allows them to reach a larger audience (compared to documentaries, for example). By reversing the classical horror narrative to reveal atrocities committed by the Westerners in Canada, Indigenous filmmakers accomplish an important goal. While these films are entertaining in their own way, their main goal is to raise awareness of the horrors Indigenous people face in their everyday lives. Hence, Indigenous horror represents a unique combination of art, history, and social activism.

Works Cited

Ahearn, Victoria. “In Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum, Zombies Offer Commentary on Colonialism.Toronto Star. 2019. Web.

Baudemann, Kristina. “Indigenous Futurist Film: Speculation and Resistance in Jeff Barnaby’s Rhymes for Young Ghouls and File Under Miscellaneous.Canadian Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror: Bridging the Solitudes, edited by Dominick Grace and Amy J. Ransom, 2019, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 151-165.

Blood Quantum. Directed by Jeff Barnaby, Elevation Pictures, 2019.

Brady, Miranda J. “Gender and State Violence: Films That Do Justice to the Issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous People in Canada.” Feminist Media Studies, vol.16, no. 5, 2016, 918-922.

Elliott, Alicia. “The Rise of Indigenous Horror: How a Fiction Genre is Confronting a Monstrous Reality.CBC Arts. 2019. Web.

Gittings, Christofer E. “Indigenous Canadian Cinemas: Negotiating the Precarious.” The Precarious in the Cinemas of the Americas, edited by Constanza Burucúa and Carolina Sitnisky, 2018, pp. 221-244.

Knopf, Kerstin. Decolonizing the Lens of Power. Indigenous Films in North America. Rodopi, 2008.

Lawrence, Bonita. “Gender, Race, and the Regulation of Native Identity in Canada and the United States: An Overview.” Hypatia, vol. 18, no. 2, 2003, pp. 3–31. Web.

Santoro, Milena. “The Rise of First Nations’ Fiction Films: Shelley Niro, Jeff Barnaby, and Yves Sioui Durand.” American review of Canadian Studies, vol. 43, no. 2, 2013, pp. 267-282.

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