The past comes back to haunt you. In America, the spectre of slavery is often the underlying theme of that country's gothic stories. Canada, though we're not as likely to admit it, has its own cultural genocide to reckon with. Rhymes for Young Ghouls, the debut feature from acclaimed Mi'kmaq director Jeff Barnaby, picks up that historical torch and sets fire to the screen.
Set in 1976, the furious film examines young Aila (Kawennahere Devery Jacobs), a 15-year-old pot dealer and survivor amongst her reserve and the blatantly corrupt Indian Affairs officers who patrol it. When her father (Glen Gould) returns from a seven-year stint in prison, Aila helps him readjust to his ravaged community while she plans with her friends to rob the local residential school.
"It seemed like a fitting time to set it," Barnaby says of his film's time period. "It was kind of a sweet spot in terms of when the residential school system was still in power, but the individuals it was affecting were starting to take a stand against it."
Barnaby's been working his way up the list of talented Canadian filmmakers these last few years. His 24-minute short, The Colony (also starring Gould), was described as a"bi-racial menage a trios drenched in surrealist urban skank." It was also, according to the Toronto International Film Festival, one of the top ten Canadian films of 2007.
Here, he writes, directs and shoots Rhymes with panache–composing his shots with an uneasy presence. His cracked-leather palette shadows every scene in browns, blacks and tans. It's beautiful to look at, and uncomfortable to sit through.
Even now, Canada barely understands the ghastly history that existed for thousands in the residential schools. Barnaby doesn't shy away from his subject. Aila and her band live in a world of ceaseless violations. There's also the internalized shame, causing a cultural cannibalization amongst the First Nations characters. That could be the self-loathing Indian Affairs officers beating and molesting their own people, or just the alcoholic, drug-abusing parties where everyone gathers for "fun." "This is what brings my people together," Aila says at one point, protected by her gasmask. "The art of forgetfulness."
"There's an authenticity that you can't really question," says Barnaby, who wrote the film in tribute to his parents. "Could this film have been made by anybody but a Native director? I think the answer is no."
Despite the very real face of history it shows, Barnaby says the film can still be categorized as a ghost story. Particularly when the dead start walking around, chatting with the living. "It just added an element of fantasy there and kind of extended the already fantastical world we were living in," he says. "There's a past that's haunting us there."
It's Aila who's haunted. The decaying spirit of her mother reaches out to the young woman stoically trying to make her way through a cultural warzone.
Jacobs earns her starring role with a layered performance. Given such a fatalistic character, many young actors could make do skipping along the surface. Jacobs instead finds a more resonant core, anchoring the entire film with Aila's fractured, stolen youth.
"I wanted a res girl," Barnaby says of his star's casting. "I wanted somebody who knows what it was to be on a reserve. I wanted that accent.
"You can't teach Indian, you know what I mean?"
Rhymes for Young Ghouls isn't an easy film. Barnaby's crisp direction shines a weathered lens on an ugly, intolerable part of our history. The filmmaker digs up the corpses of the desecrated dead, painting a portrait of history with its own ashes.
"It's quite a conundrum for Native people and me in particular. You carry all this anger around and you don't know why. It's hard to direct it at anything."
Haunting its audience, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is a post-apocalyptic fable that takes place in our own past. It isn't a horror film, but only because this all really happened.
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