BLOOD QUANTUM Interviews: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Michael Greyeyes Talk Zombies and Indigenous Representation in Film
Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum is a very singular zombie film, set in a First Nations reserve in Canada called Red Crow.
Structurally, Blood Quantum follows pretty much two days in the lives of several characters from the reserve, including the chief of police Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) and his relatives: his ex Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), his two sons from different mothers, Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) and the problematic Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), and his father Gisigu (Stonehorse Lone Goeman).
The first part of the story has the characters discovering, in 1981, that there’s something extremely weird going on. Dead animals, like Gisigu's gutted fish or the dog Traylor had to shoot out of pity, are coming back to life. Humans are also affected and some of them are now flesh-eating creatures.
Six months later, the reserve is resisting the outbreak. The natives are inmune, actually, but there's constant tension. Joseph and his white pregnant girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) are among those who try to help anybody who’s not infected. On the other hand, someone like Lysol would be happy without any outsiders. The second part of the film depicts the day when everything in Red Crow finally explodes into "zeds" (zombies) running wild and a lot of violence.
In the gallery below you can check out my interviews with cast members Tailfeathers and Greyeyes. Blood Quantum is now available on VOD, Digital HD, DVD and Blu-ray.
INTERVIEW WITH ELLE-MÁIJÁ TAILFEATHERS
ScreenAnarchy: How was your first connection with the script and with director Jeff Barnaby?
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers: I’ve watched and admired Jeff’s work for years. Some really powerful shorts films and then his first feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls was a really incredible moment for indigenous film and Canadian film.
When my agent reached out to me about auditioning for a role, I jumped at the chance to work with Jeff because I knew that his work is deep in politics and creativity and he has such a unique voice. So that’s how it happened.
Especially in the first part of the film, the background of your character Joss is presented, she’s struggling as a mother. How was your approach?
Well I think Jeff does a really fantastic job of speaking about the ways that colonialism has impacted our families and the way that our kinship has been fractured by colonialism. The story is a really beautiful portrait of a family trying to survive, a family that’s been damaged by colonialism, but also about how families move forward.
Joss to me represented so many indigenous women I know who are holding up our communities and managing to essentially work acts of magic on a daily basis in the ways that they hold up our communities. It was an honor to play her, there was so much nuance to that character and so much power to that character.
I think it’s also interesting the evolution of this character because she takes a more prominent role as the film goes on, especially in the climax when she gives that speech about empathy. What can you comment on the evolution of your character?
To me, again, she represents so many indigenous women I know within our community who are doing incredible work, they often are doing that work quietly behind the scenes. For me she was all about someone who offers her love and works not only for her family but for her community, and has hope despite all odds. She also represents indigenous women who become leaders not by choice but because they have to. So she’s in some ways an unconventional leader but in many ways just the type of leader that I see in so many women in our communities.
How important is for you to be representing the Canadian First Nations in cinema?
Here in Canada we have a rich diversity of representation of indigenous people coming from indigenous filmmakers. This particular film represents a really critical turning point for indigenous film because it’s reaching such a broad audience. Often films made by indigenous filmmakers don’t necessarily get out into the world in the way that this film has. So it’s a really unique moment for all of us in watching the way that broader audiences, audiences even around the world are responding to this film. I’m enjoying witnessing all of it and I’m very happy to be a part of the journey.
Horror is a very popular genre, especially zombie films. How important is genre cinema to tell stories with social relevance?
Well, if you look at the history of the way that indigenous people have experienced genoicide in all throughout North, Central and South America, the film itself doesn’t really feel all that strange and so far from reality, because it is what we have experienced and what we continue to experience and witness.
I think the choice to make a zombie film was a really brilliant decision because I feel like it’s a world in which broader audiences can understand and digest what happens. It’s also convincing in an entertaining way so it’s attracting this really broad audience who likes zombies films, likes horror films, who might not expect to witness a film that’s so political in many ways. I think it was a brilliant decision on Jeff’s part to tell the story through the lens of the zombie genre.
Of course there are many themes going on, especially the clash between indigenous and white people. What issues you expect people to be reflecting on after watching this movie?
That there’s a long way to go in terms of creating a relationship of equality with indigenous people and settlers in Canada, the U.S. and throughout the Americas. It’s important for audiences to reflect on what indigenous people have experienced and continue to experience, and that genocide actually happened and is continuing to happen in various forms. So I hope audiences are entertained but also walk away with a lot of important questions about how we’re all implicated in this story.
I know you have directed some films, particularly dramas [including THE BODY REMEMBERS WHEN THE WORLD BROKE OPEN], so in that sense what was for you the main difference of working now on a horror film?
Well it was like nothing I’ve ever done before, it was a lot of fun. Actually I wasn’t sure what to expect but it was so much fun to witness the special effects team at work, and just to witness all of the thought that went into creating this world that we all lived in for six weeks of shooting.
As a director, it was just a really brilliant experience to be able to watch Jeff work and to learn from him. And then also the rest of the cast was fantastic, it was so much fun working with the other actors, just so much laughter between takes.
What do you think you brought to this movie as a filmmaker and, viceversa, what was the greatest lesson you learned from Jeff as a director?
That’s a tough question. Having directed films for almost a decade now I’ve learned what’s required behind the camera and so coming at it as an actor, there’s a lot of things that I didn’t understand before I started directing.
It’s interesting ‘cause they’re both very different skill sets. It’s very interesting marrying the two and trying to navigate headspaces of both of those roles.
What I learned from Jeff, I guess just the commitment to your vision. He created something very original, I don’t think a lot of filmmakers would be brave enough to tell a story like that, so I really respected his commitment to telling the story that he envisioned years and years ago.
This is your first horror film but as a cinephile do you consider other horror movies to be socially important?
That’s a tough question! I’m so bad at answering those questions! But one film that has really stuck with me over the last year and a half was Mati Diop’s Atlantique, which is kind of a bit of a horror film that speaks about undocumented migration and the upset people have to go to survive and the horrifying world of what undocumented migrants face. That’s a really, really powerful genre film and the message will stick with me for years.
A film like BLOOD QUANTUM certainly helps with the issue of representation. How do you feel about this subject since it seems there’s still a lot of work to be done?
Yeah, I agree, there’s a lot of work to be done. I think we’re in a really interesting moment, things are certainly changing in terms of the support that indigenous filmmakers are receiving. It’s very important that we are the ones driving the narrative and we are the ones telling stories about ourselves because outsiders will always get it wrong somehow.