2020, NR, 96 min. Directed by Jeff Barnaby. Starring Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck, Kowa Gordon.
REVIEWED By Matthew Monagle, Fri., May 8, 2020
In 1984, First Nations filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin released Incident at Restigouche, a 45-minute documentary film about the recent clash between the Quebec government and the Mi’kmaq tribe. The film combines archival footage and interviews with Mi’kmaq citizens, including a heated exchange between Obomsawin and Lucien Lessard, the government official who orchestrated two police raids in June of 1981. These raids were intended to enforce the restrictions the Department of Fisheries had attempted to place on the Mi’kmaq people, limiting the hours of operation for Mi’kmaq fishermen.
Ultimately, more than 300 Quebec Provincial Police (QPP) officers would descend on the Restigouche Reserve, arresting adults and minors over a handful of fishing nets. In her interviews with Lessard, Obomsawin captures the underlying issues – including the rejection of tribal sovereignty by the Quebec government and lingering beliefs of French-Canadian colonialism – that drove the actions of the QPP. Decades later, First Nations filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, who grew up on the Restigouche Reserve, would describe Obomsawin’s work as his first exposure to the idea of film as “social protest.”
This film laid the foundation for Bloom Quantum, Barnaby’s latest zombie film generating a much-deserved degree of buzz on the video-on-demand market. Set in 1981, Blood Quantum follows Mi’kmaq sheriff Traylor (Greyeyes) as he scrambles to protect his town from the impending zombie apocalypse. After six months of decapitations – and plenty of bites to go around - Traylor and his ex-wife Joss (Tailfeathers) find themselves leading a community of survivors, including the First Nations residents who are immune to the zombie infection and the white survivors who must turn to them for protection. Caught between the actions of his two sons – Lysol (Gordon), who views every refugee as a potential enemy, and Joseph (Goodluck), who is worried about his pregnant white girlfriend – Traylor must do his best to protect his community when an outbreak occurs within the reservation walls.
In interviews, Barnaby has discussed Blood Quantum as a direct response to the “intergenerational trauma” experienced by Indigenous people. Barnaby also speaks at length of Lysol, whose willingness to unleash zombies on the refugees is best understood through this same generational lens. “He’s going to be angry and self-destructive,” Barnaby recently explained to Vulture writer Jordan Crucchiola, “and the worst thing about it is, he’s going to be righteous in the sense that he knows he’s right.” Given the now-familiar elements of the zombie movie, this rejection of archetypes – such as the villain who turns his back on his fellow survivors in an act of self-preservation – frames the zombie movie in a whole new light.
Much of Bloom Quantum operates from this place of familiarity. We recognize the dawning horror of the those first few hours and expect to see the survivors turn on each other in a moment of panic. Our knowledge of zombie movies suggests that factions will form within the reservation, and we are not surprised to soon see groups of Mi’kmaq enforcers fighting against a background of blood and fire. But Blood Quantum operates from a place of tribal identity and that no white audience members will truly be able to understand. In this way, Barnaby’s film rejects the default white gaze of so many horror films, choosing to tell a story through an unapologetically Indigenous lens.
This approach, when combined with Barnaby’s unquestionable skills as a horror director, make Blood Quantum one of the most fascinating horror films of the past few years, but this does not mean that Bloom Quantum is fodder for future graduate papers and nothing more. Make no mistake: this is an aggressively gnarly movie, determined to deliver the degree of gore we would find in a ‘70s Italian horror film. From chainsaws to disembowelment, Bloom Quantum pulls no punches, unwilling to hold back its graphic content to ensure that audiences don’t miss the message. Barnaby and his cast are here to entertain and let the experiences of these characters speak for themselves, and as a result, we are free to enjoy the gore and the standout performances of actors like Greyeyes and Gordon.
Through it all, it is easy to see shades of Incident at Restigouche present in Barnaby’s storytelling. While Barnaby has noted that Obomsawin’s film was mandatory viewing for the cast and crew of Blood Quantum, here the otherness he experienced as a child is in part repurposed to tell a story of survivors at the end of the world. "Think about being a young man and you know nothing about the outside world,” Barnaby told Canadian talk show host George Stroumboulopoulos in 2014, “but the outside world comes knocking at your door and they come armed to the teeth and looking to bust your head.” What else but a horror film could hope to capture this experience for a new generation of moviegoers?
Blood Quantum is now available to stream through Shudder.
Incident at Restigouche is available free online, courtesy of the National Filmboard of Canada, at www.nfb.ca.