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Exclusive Interview: Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Forrest Goodluck on “Blood Quantum” and the Politics of Zombies

Saturday, September 5, 2020 | Interview

By: Maddi McGillvray

Blood Quantum is arguably one of the most talked-about zombie films in recent years, and for good reason! The Canadian horror film effectively uses a zombie outbreak as a metaphor to address the atrocities committed against Canada’s indigenous population. Written and directed by Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls), Blood Quantum takes place during an apocalyptic plague where the dead are coming back to life, except for indigenous people who are immune to the disease. This connection between colonialism and a literal virus is made even more prominent by the film’s timely release during a real-life pandemic.

In addition to powerful social commentary and plenty of hyperbolic gore, Blood Quantum is equally a compelling story about family and the importance of preserving one’s community. Rue Morgue got the exclusive opportunity to catch up with cast members Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Forrest Goodluck, who portray a complicated, yet heartwarming mother/son relationship.

Since the election of Trump, people are feeling more unwelcome in their own national borders than ever before. How does Blood Quantum address frustrations with racism and the glaring hypocrisy of modern xenophobia?
EMT: Well I don’t think it’s just the Trump situation, which is more specific to America. We have our own issues here in Canada in terms of our own current Liberal government and prior to them the Conservatives. Canada was built on colonialism and on the blood, sweat, and tears of brown and black bodies. So these issues have also existed in Canada for a very long time and they’re ongoing. I think Blood Quantum does an excellent job of exploring the illness that is colonialism, racism, and the systemic and structural violence that needs to happen in order for these systems to continue. I think Blood Quantum does an incredible job of bringing those structures under the microscope in this bizarre alternate universe that in many ways reflects this current reality that we live in. State and structural violence, these systems of power and oppression, are inherently violent… it’s just a different kind of violence.

FG: I think Blood Quantum is a film that tackles a lot of nuanced issues dealing with race, racism, and prejudice, but I think that the beauty of the film is that it’s also very entertaining and wrapped in a bloody metaphor that I think people are going to really enjoy just for the fact that it’s a zombie film. It’s a film that is very clever because every plot point and character was well crafted to represent demographics of people and the different ideologies of how people deal with systemic racism. I think that this film is going to be watched and appreciated as both a work of art because it’s a beautiful film, but also as a conversation piece for how we view indigenous people and populations.

What makes horror such an exemplary genre for exploring these themes?
EMT: Audiences can often be so uncomfortable with seeing very explicit cinematic violence. I think when it comes to a film like Blood Quantum, the violence is sort of a metaphor for the daily violence that indigenous people in Canada and America face. I’m very curious to see how audiences respond to this type of violence because settlers in this country and in America are inherently implicated in those structures of violence. That’s not to say that every settler is a bad person, but it just means that settlers in both of these nation states benefit from these structures of power that inherently disempower indigenous people, black people, and immigrants. In Canada, we have our own issues with the absolute refusal to respect the human rights of migrant workers and also refugees.

FG: Horror is something that is very visceral for audiences and grabs your attention, but it’s also super fun and a lighthearted way to tackle really serious issues. I think that the scariest kind of demon that exists in this film is prejudice and racism. I think it’s a very powerful way to tackle complex ideas. It’s called Blood Quantum just for the different themes that come up when you’re talking about identity – what identity really means, or what it really means to be in a community. I think it’s a film that raises more questions than it does answers. I think it’s a film that’s going to enlighten people to the weird laws that come with being native, and at the end of the day, what that really means.

And to that same end, why is the zombie subgenre so effective?
EMT: In this film in particular, we’re looking at the illness of colonialism, but also the illness of capitalism. Colonialism and capitalism must coexist. Colonialism is fed by the greed of capitalism and the idea of building an empire. If you’re looking at zombies, there’s this salaciousness and hunger that can never be fed. When you look at the way that capitalism functions, inherently there’s going to be this system where people are eaten up by this machine. We in the first world are benefiting so much from various elements of capitalism wherein people living in the third world in the global south essentially are victims to capitalism and are slave labour. So when you’re looking at the zombie film, I think it speaks to the greed of capitalism and the ways that when humanity is forced to function within this system… we eat each other. We become so greedy that the value of human life ceases to exist.

FG: I wouldn’t necessarily say that I’m a zombie person. My favourite kind of horror films are ones like The Shining or Rosemary’s Baby, so I’m sort of more into the art house stuff. I think the horrors of the world are more when you can pin point them less.

How was your experience filming on location in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory, the Listuguj reserve, and in parts of Montreal?
EMT: It was wonderful. We were shooting in Kahnawake, which is in Mohawk territory, and it was really incredible just to be present on this territory. The people are beautiful, the language is very much alive. It’s this really interesting oppositional universe in a lot of ways to what’s going on in the film. Here you have this beautiful and thriving community in Kahnawake where you just know that this community is going to exist forever, knowing how much is put into loving the land, the language, the culture, and the community. Then when you’re looking at Red Crow in the film, the whole world is falling apart. Jeff [Barnaby] said something very interesting when we were doing a scene in Mi’gMaq and before we started shooting. He said, “Even though it’s the end of the world, the language still matters.” I think that really speaks to the resilience and strength of indigenous people and languages. Because language is a way of seeing the world. It’s a way of coexisting with the world. In some ways it’s a very different universe. So to be there in that community where the language is so alive, it was incredible. I’d walk on set and there’d be zombies, death, gore, and violence everywhere, and then I’d step outside and it’s this beautiful and peaceful community. The Mohawk language is all over and I think it’s something to aspire to. I think the people of Red Crow would fight to the bitter end for the right not just to exist, but to thrive. We also shot on location in Listuguj, which is Jeff’s home community. It was really cool to see the birthplace of Jeff’s vision for the film. The community is iconic in terms of indigenous rights and the fight that the community had in the early 1980s with the Canadian state and the government of Quebec to fish and to do what they’ve done since the beginning.

FG: It was really cool. I’ve never been to Montreal and it was interesting to see the French influence. It was also interesting to see the differences between reserves. I’ve been across Canada and in the United States, where it’s even very different, to see reserves, but it’s cool to just explore different native cultures and see what they do. It’s so cool to see everybody’s stories, histories, pride, and love for where they come from. Jeff allowing us to exist in the world that he created is really cool.

Tell me about your characters. Were they challenging roles to play?
EMT: I play Joss and she’s pretty awesome. She kind of reminds me of many of the indigenous women that I know who uphold our communities. They really are the pillars of our communities and are the glue that holds the communities together. They are often the reason that language thrives and why our communities exist. So often in any indigenous community it’s the women who are doing the real work, which means keeping everything together and moving forward and keeping the peace. They’re doing it very altruistically and out of love. They’re doing it quietly in the sense that they’re not expecting anything in return. I see Joss as that kind of woman. I’m inspired by many of the indigenous women in my life and I think she reflects those women. She’s a single mother of this 18 year old kid who’s gotten his girlfriend pregnant. She’s got the very familiar struggles that a lot of single moms have and now she has to live through the zombie apocalypse! She also needs to join forces with her ex, who she still loves, but he’s gone and fucked everything up like so many men do. I think Joss is a really wonderful character who is very multi-dimensional. I can relate to her in many ways and I can also see her in the many women that I know.

FG: Joseph is from the Red Crow reservation, which is a total creation of Jeff’s crazy world, and he’s this kid that just keeps messing up in every aspect of his life. He’s really trying to do his best, but he just can’t seem to do anything right. His girlfriend is pregnant, his mom is mad at him, he doesn’t like his dad at all, and his brother keeps getting into trouble and he keeps supporting him. Finally when the apocalypse begins, it kind of sets his priorities straight. In a funny way, it’s almost like he needed the apocalypse to see what really matters.

How does Blood Quantum address the intersectional oppression of indigenous women?
EMT: I think it does to a degree. In all honesty, I think it could go further. As an indigenous woman I do my best to make sure that indigenous feminism and the ways that I’ve been taught to exist in this world in a good way with other women informs my work. I have to say it was a bit challenging with this one. It’s not perfect in terms of representation of indigenous women. There’s not too many of us even in this film. Perhaps that’s just a reflection of where we are at today. That being said, I think my character is someone to admire and that young indigenous women can watch the film and look up to her. She’s the one that survives and the final scene in the movie is her with this baby in her arms and I think that says a lot. I think Jeff did his best and I think any film made by a man isn’t going to quite succeed in terms of representation of women. So I don’t think it’s necessarily a reflection on Jeff, but I think it’s just that we need more women and non-binary people making films. However, I’m proud to be a part of this project and I think it’s going to be a really interesting ride to see how audiences think of this film.

After decades of misrepresentation and under-representation in Canada’s screen industry, it is very inspiring to see such a strong indigenous presence in the film. How was it working with such an impressive cast and do you have any advice for other indigenous actors looking to work in the industry?
EMJ: Just do it! There are a few reasons why I have been able to achieve what I have so far and it hasn’t been easy. I think that the factors that have really lead me to where I am is the love and support of my family and the community. The support of so many other indigenous filmmakers who have been working in the industry a lot longer than I have. There’s quite a few people who I just owe so much to because they’ve been supportive every step of the way. There’s no way I could have done it without the support of these people saying that I could do it, telling me how they got through the situation, or this is what you need to do to get to where you want to be and get this project made. A lot of it was also not really knowing what I was doing, but still wanting to do it. Every project I do is a learning experience. I’ve never done anything conventionally because I’m not formally trained in filmmaking. In some ways I think it’s made my career quite interesting because it’s all very unconventional. I don’t really know the conventional way of doing things. So my advice would be to just do it and find any possible way to do it. Reach out to your community, support other filmmakers and become a part of the community in any way, and take any opportunity you can to learn. I worked on sets and as an extra. Just do anything where you can learn and just figure it out.

FG: I’ve been fortunate to work with really talented directors and amazing artists that have each left their mark and taught me something. It feels like I’ve just been so unfairly fortunate to get the projects that I’ve been able to work on. It’s been so great and I think this is an extension of that. Ultimately, I think everybody should have the right to tell their stories at the end of the day. Unfortunately, I think in some cases it’s harder for some groups of people to speak their voice. It’s like the Maya Angelou poem “Why Does the Caged Bird Sing?” It’s a nice metaphor for the feeling that some people have and I think it’s time to let those voices be heard. Because in some ways, telling your stories can be the most important and powerful thing you can do for people to allow and support that.

 

Maddi McGillvray
Maddi is the Editorial Assistant at Rue Morgue Magazine. She is also a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies at York University, where she writes extensively on the horror genre. Maddi is completing her doctoral dissertation on women working in horror. She is also currently writing book chapters titled "Fleshy Female Corporealities: The Cannibal Films of the New French Extremity" as well as "To Grandmother’s House We Go: Documenting the Aging Female Body in Found Footage Horror Films."