"Rhymes" is an almost fable-like tale that uses the tragic history of the residential school system as a backdrop for a dark coming-of-age film. This impressive work was selected as one of Canada's Top 10 at TIFF, and after its successful festival run is making its way to Canadian theatres.
Moviefone Canada spoke with Barnaby about the film, its reception and the way that genre cinema can tell fundamental truths under the guise of entertainment.
Moviefone Canada: The film seems to be doing quite well.
Jeff Barnaby: It's so interesting to see the reaction. I think it's been so positive in Canada because it was such a non-Canadian movie, if that makes any sense. It's not as cerebral as an Egoyan movie, or a Cronenberg movie. We definitely went out to make a popcorn movie, to make a Canadian exploitation movie that's different than "The Reanimator." There's definitely a lot of stuff going on in that film to think about.
After you shot the movie, you went back and incorporated more explicit allusions to the school?
Yeah, because nobody knew what residential schools are. That blew my mind because, well, it's like saying that you don't know what the Holocaust is. Are you crazy? You're supposed to know this stuff. I was naive in thinking that Canadians would educate themselves about our shared history and that's just not the case. That's what I get for thinking the best of people! [Laughs]
To have something that's this pure evil in the history of Canada, when this country is regarded as always being so polite, and all of the clichés you hear coming out of the talk shows in the States. The idea that the Canadian government, that the first Prime Minister of Canada would institutionalize the murder and sexual abuse of children to the point where they were churning them out by the thousands, is insane. My solution to that was: I'm just going to present it as what it is, and focus on the kids and focus on what they're going to try to do in order to combat it.
When you have a corrupt system, the system itself corrupts everybody in different ways.
Including the bad guy.
The bad guy is playing a role within the system.
To me he was one of the casualties of the budget. There was a much bigger back story to him, his history with the school, why he was the only white guy at a residential school. It's just one of those things that you wish you had more time with, but if you've got to pick between do we watch the bad guy or do we watch the characters, as the central focus of the film, you kind of have to go with your good guys or anti-heroes, your main characters.
One film it actually reminds me of is "Pan's Labyrinth."
Yeah, we looked at that, all of Guillermo Del Toro's films. You've gotta look at "Pan's Labyrinth," "Devil's Backbone" ... that's what we were looking for in terms of tone.
Could you talk about getting the performances out of this remarkable ensemble, getting the cast and crew together, and just the fundamental challenges of making a film given the restrictions that you had?
We've been making high-quality films with very little money for so long, we've gotten very good at it and we've been lucky in that the scripts that I write attract great artisans. Just being from Quebec, not to s**t on the rest of Canada, but Quebec, let's face it, they have a different sensibility from the rest of Canada when it comes to cinema; it's great to be able to have those artisans at your beck and call to execute your film. We had a lot of female energy on set. We made a point of getting a lot of girls to help realize the character of Aila. That made this film the easiest film I've ever shot.
How did casting take place?
In terms of casting, my philosophy is always trying to cast to type. The base for it all was that they needed to come from a reserve or they needed to understand where these characters are coming from, and I was lucky enough to get Brandon, Glen and everybody in there. They all grew up around reserves or on reserves, so they got the humour and they got the philosophy of the screenplay right away. I didn't need to say, "OK, this is why laughing at child molestation is funny to Indians, I didn't have to say anything like that them. I mean who laughs at that stuff? Indians do."
A form of gallows humour, perhaps?
Yeah, exactly, it's like I think one of the main reasons Native people have managed to survive as long as they have is because they're able to laugh at stuff like that. I've had this conversation with Jewish people so many times, and they say it's the tragedy of our history that gives us the ability to laugh at stuff. And I think there's a really bleak, black humour to Native people who can laugh at anything. I've seen guys try to throw themselves off the bridge and kill themselves and a couple of days later the guys are laughing at them, making fun of them. That's crazy, but that's how Native people deal with tragedy. I needed to have that embedded within the personalities of all of the people that I cast because if not, then they just weren't going to get it and I think we were really lucky.
What was your biggest surprise about the film's reception?
The biggest surprise was that I did it. As a writer, director, editor, composer, you figure that at one point, I'm going to snap, but I didn't. Moving from another country with a wife and a kid that was just fresh out of the womb ... and just the ability to do it. That, to me, is my baseline for success. I don't feel any less anxious about filmmaking; I'm not any more comfortable because we didn't really get paid. I feel like I need to prove myself all over again to be 100 percent honest, because any filmmaker or producer will tell you that 80 percent of people who make their first feature don't go on to make another one. My anxieties revolve around paying my rent, not am I going to win the award or get nominated for this, although I do get annoyed when I don't win. [Laughs] I think setting challenges for yourself that you don't know you can [necessarily] meet or succeed at is what makes good art.
"Rhymes for Young Ghouls" has a limited release on January 31.