Traces of Postindian Survivance: Two Short Films by Jeff Barnaby
Jeff Barnaby, a Mi’kmaq First Nations director, was four years old when the Quebec Provincial Police raided his Restigouche Reservation to restrict salmon fishing rights. The events of the raid are explored in Alanis Obomsawin’s documentary Incident at Restigouche (1984) and, as Barnaby recalls, are forever seared into his memory. Like this early childhood recollection Barnaby’s cinema is rife with conflict, frequently noted by critics for its violence and referred to by Barnaby himself as “bare-knuckled cinema.” His films are devastating renditions of loss, addiction, and longing but are made with an ironic and biting flare that withholds nihilism and gleans residues of survivance from its oppressed and seemingly hopeless Mi’kmaq characters. Barnaby’s short films From Cherry English (2004) and File Under Miscellaneous (2010) are important contributions to First Nations cinema, each a unique approach to the contradictions, disappearances, and alienations of Mi’kmaq history, identity, and community within the postcolonial and late-capitalist landscape of contemporary Quebec. Oscillating between multiple historical and cultural frames, these films interact with American pop culture, French cinema, Canadian cinema, as well as their own Mi’kmaq situation to produce postindian narratives out of what Gerald Vizenor refers to as the ruins of representation. Through invigorating images of cultural and historical absence and fragmentation these short films revitalize alienated Mi’kmaq signifiers with a postindian presence, so that, rather than fetishizing a simulative and inaccessible history, these images can situate themselves within the globalized geopolitical present whilst rejecting colonial assimilation and preserving a newly discovered First Nations aesthetic of autonomy.
The terms postindian and survivance are both used heavily in the academic work of Gerald Vizenor, whose writings theoretically intermingle with Barnaby’s short films. Both terms are somewhat elusive and difficult when trying to attach them to fixed definitions. They are, in a certain sense, living and active terms, which escape immediately discernible and stable meanings. But, suffice to say, postindian indicates an overcoming of colonial representation through “narrative recreation,” parodying indian simulation, subverting and overthrowing non-native dominance “in the ruins of tribal representations” (Vizenor 1999: 6-8). The term is itself a recognition of “the indian” as a colonial discursive production. Postindian recognizes the heterogeneity of native communities and their multiplicity rather than their simulative singularity. Survivance indicates an ongoing and active survival of native peoples, a survival rooted not only in the preservation of the past but also through communication with the future. The term is not a compensatory promotion of mere recognition but advocates a survival charged with autonomy and resistance. These two terms are essential to a comprehensive analysis of Barnaby’s short films From Cherry English and File Under Miscellaneous, which reject insidious attitudes of subsumption within Canada’s extortive frame.
Beginning with a native Mi’kmaq in a night club of mostly white people in urban Canada, From Cherry English situates its subject as an alienated outsider, whose simulative native identity is a fetishistic performance. The club’s music is electronic, synthetic, and fragmented, the lights strobe in and out, and the camera’s frame rate runs at reduced speed, creating distanciating and stupored movement as the man dances and meets a white woman, whom he begins to make out with. Back at his apartment the woman asks him to say something indian, to which he can say nothing as he doesn’t know his native language. Although his room is filled with native signifiers, such as a dreamcatcher and caribou horns, they construct a simulative native identity that refers more to the commodification, exploitation, and fictitious production of indianness than to actual Mi’kmaq histories. Yet these indian simulations become the real in the absence of authentic and auratic Mi’kmaq history, as is the case for the film’s central character who is alienated from his native language and its localization, producing in its place a simulacrum of his fragmented past.
But more important than this Baudrillardian simulacrum is the violence with which Barnaby approaches history and the body. After the man and woman have had sex the film falls into hallucinatory montage, wherein the woman writes on the Mi’kmaq man, in cherry juice, symbols of his native language. The juice, like blood, appears to penetrate the man’s torso, it’s volatility complimented by his being allergic to cherries, and violates him through its active attachment to the white female body, who, through her sexuality and violence, provides a fleeting and empty continuity between the man, his body, and his lost history. Moments later, when the man goes to the bathroom and looks in the mirror, his native tongue detaches itself from his body, slithering out of his mouth and into the sink, sliding and jumping about (in a fashion similar to Jan Švankmajer’s tongues), escaping the man’s attempts to get hold of it; a physical manifestation of bodily as well as historical discontinuity. Intensified by an excess of blood, covering both the sink and the mirror (his reflected image superimposed by a loss charged with violence), his embodied cohesion is shattered with this ejaculatory escape – a Lacanian double operation of both the mirror stage and castration anxiety – so that he is emptied out of both his bodily and spiritual identification. In this emptiness his mirrored self grabs hold of him, pulling the man into a refracted spirit world. He arrives, with tongue in hand, in the snow-covered wilderness of his ancestral past as an empty and ahistorical body, violently stripped of a cohesive and simulative subjectivity.
This ancestral localization, his grandparent’s camp, puts the man in contact with his history and provides the possibility for his own survivance. His grandmother takes his tongue and sews it back into his mouth, a violent operation implying that moving forward whilst understanding and embracing an eradicated past is an active and difficult endeavor. Barnaby, never one for sentimentality, reveals this active resistance to still be accompanied by loneliness and loss when the man’s grandfather says to him, “You want to learn how to say something in indian? Get drunk and speak bad english.” The line is both recognition of the simulative and colonial history of the term “indian” as well as recognition that certain histories are irretrievable. There’s a certain irrevocable loss that, rather than being perverted into commodified or flattened simulation, can only be understood by its absence. But absence doesn’t require melancholia nor a sense of lack, it can also be an impetus for survivance, producing a desire to recreate anew on the ruins of representation. A possibility From Cherry English seems skeptical of, but doesn’t completely dismiss, with its ambiguous ending of the Mi’kmaq man waking up hungover, pouring himself a glass of whiskey, and looking out through translucent curtains at the outside world, seeing a blurred landscape of potentiality shrouded in indeterminacy.
Barnaby turns to the science fiction genre for his 2010 short film File Under Miscellaneous, which uses the genre to dismantle and reconfigure assimilation and the violent destruction of First Nations’ identities and bodies under colonial dominance. A short account of an ambiguous Mi’kmaq man arriving at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in a dystopian future to have his skin and tongue replaced with a white man’s, the film is a surreal genre piece that shows not so much an imminent future but rather an allegory of the present. File Under Miscellaneous shares much with Barnaby’s earlier film From Cherry English; concerns with the loss of language and identity are both heavily present, but provides a new perspective by making the main character complicit and active in his assimilation and mutilation, in his becoming-white. For some this may appear an even more pessimistic turn in Barnaby’s work, but it is in fact a turn far more politically mobile than his previous short film had allowed. Although the film’s subject matter lends itself to an analysis of the biopolitical apparatuses which control, consume, and exterminate life, such as those employed in German concentration camps (as the film aptly represents in its final moments), it is equally, if not more, important to look at how the film represents these politics of life and death in their potential to overturn such apparatuses of control. If this Mi’kmaq man is made complicit in his own extermination, then it follows that he is also capable of negating it. Rather than total subjugation, File Under Miscellaneous reveals how postmodern power invests a large portion of its mobility by allowing agency within other subjects under the assumption, a normally correct one, that such agency will produce a strong alignment with the oppressor by the advent of choice and illusory liberty. But, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, writers of the seminal work Empire (2000), have noted, there is “the potential for the production of alternative subjectivities” that “are presented at once as resistance and de-subjectification” within these political operations over and within life (2013: 239). File Under Miscellaneous, in presenting control at its most sinister, tearing away flesh and tongue, eradicating histories, cultures, and identities, and presenting a dystopian and hyper-capitalist wasteland of the present, creates the possibility for a power reversal, through an investment of agency within the film’s Mi’kmaq character.
Following this concern with political mobility, File Under Miscellaneous uses intertextuality so as to be accessible to far-reaching audiences whilst preserving First Nations and Mi’kmaq thematic autonomies. Taking influence from body horror auteur and fellow Canadian David Cronenberg as well as French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet, using, as Miléna Santoro notes, “quotations from a famous Pablo Neruda poem, ‘Walking Around,’” and referring back to his previous film, From Cherry English (with the tongue transplant), the film is, like its Mi’kmaq subject, an assemblage of different cultural frames (2013: 274). Although, unlike its main character, the film never submits to one particular and hegemonic frame. Its identity, as a cultural and aesthetic artifact, is distinctly Barnaby’s own and therefore concerned first and foremost with First Nations issues, using multiple frames and histories to situate First Nations as active participants in the present rather than as terminal and static cultural groups isolated from and object of the global geopolitical operations in the contemporary world.
File Under Miscellaneous successfully maintains an ethic concentrated on postindian survivance. By using the science fiction genre Barnaby is able to hyper-activate the simulations operating in the present, thereby revealing their flawed and coercive logics, and ultimately dismantling their representational power. The film’s central target for representational parody is the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Utilizing the BIA as a localized metonym for the operations of a wide array of neoliberal colonial actors and essentially reducing all their political and coercive operations to a life or death concern with identity politics, Barnaby intensifies already present simulative procedures to the point of absurdity, revealing not his own representational inaccuracy but rather accentuating how real these oppressive simulative operations are. The film appropriates the white supremacist normative logics of hegemonic representation, turns them in on themselves, and ruptures their simulative operations of documentation, racialization, and subjectification. Through this representational wasteland Barnaby communicates with his audience the survivance of the Mi’kmaq people as well as his own ongoing struggle to destabilize non-native representational dominance.
Taken together From Cherry English and File Under Miscellaneous necessitate a short critique of violence in the ongoing resistance towards colonial expansion and representation. For Barnaby violence seems not so much a negative or positive actor or instrument but rather an ambiguous force that appears in tandem with any operation of power. Yet simultaneously the violence in these films is almost always allegorical for the figurative violence and upheavals experienced by First Nations people or allusive to the actual violence experienced by these very same people. Neither film presents a violence which immediately refers back to a lived reality, they always maintain an element of representational distanciation. What then of this representational violence? It seems that Barnaby’s violence is one that brings forth a representational rupture, requiring not a physically violent resistance but one that violently overthrows the visual languages of oppression through representational appropriations, destructions, and disseminations in the hopes of making possible an Event. A violence reserved for the war being fought on the ruins of representation. This representational violence, which potentiates rupture and avows the Event, is Barnaby’s central method of survivance in providing postindian presence to Mi’kmaq native communities.
Through representational violence these two films revitalize their alienated subjects with a postindian presence that usurps power from central, colonial regimes of representation. The violent removal of the tongue, present in both films, works as a key motif of Barnaby’s that accentuates this point. For From Cherry English and File Under Miscellaneous this occurrence is the metaphorical loss of language and this loss does not come to pass due to a passive forgetting but rather is an enforced loss, a loss that is enacted by a colonial power, that strips and tears native tongues from their ancestral and bodily ties. Both films represent this clearly, as well as the abject castration anxiety and thereby identity loss associated with it. But further, they use these violent and extracted losses as schismatic digressions, which force the spectator to index these extreme moments within their memory, a distanciation that compels involvement rather than precluding it. These obliged memory burns sear those images of symbolic colonial violence into the collective spectatorial environment and force forward a presence of Mi’kmaq bodies in spite of the violence and subjugation forced upon them. This tongue castration reveals native bodies and their representations resisting colonial simulations, establishing their unique autonomy away from indian falsehoods and into the non-reductive multiplicity of postindian presences.
An open cinema, Jeff Barnaby’s short films From Cherry English and File Under Miscellaneous represent an ongoing struggle, which cannot be deduced to singularity nor to a neoliberal representation of tokenized recognition. Rather Barnaby’s two short film’s are justifiably militant calls for representational violence to destabilize colonial forms of representation. Through these violent movements Barnaby is able to re-charge images of Mi’kmaq loss and absence with new meanings that produce momentum for First Nations communities fighting for survival in present day North America. A fictitious and simulative rhetoric prevails in both Canada and the United States that the fight for tribal autonomy is over, Barnaby’s cinema reinvigorates that fight. Essential to both films is the active survival of tribal people, a survival which has subsisted against all odds, in spite of extermination efforts, control over reproductive rights, relocation acts, and so forth. Both From Cherry English and File Under Miscellaneous are indispensable films representing the struggle for survivance and the continued presence of Mi’kmaq communities in resistance to colonial endeavors.
John Garland Winn is a Senior at Virginia Commonwealth University in his final semester studying World Cinema with a particular interest in the diasporic cinemas of Portugal and Brazil, Native American Cinema, and Experimental American Cinema. He has been published in the academic journal Film Matters with his article “The Wasteful Semblances of David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis” as well as with book reviews of The Philosophy of Michael Mann and Dario Argento. In Fall of 2016 he intends to pursue a Ph.D. in Film and Media Studies.
Baudrillard, Jean (1995), Simulacra and Simulation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
CBC Television (2014), Jeff Barnaby on George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, 31 January. Last accessed 21 January 2016.
Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri (2013), “Biopolitics as Event,” in Timothy Campbell and Adam Sitze (eds.), Biopolitics: A Reader, Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 237-244.
Santoro, Miléna (2013), “The Rise of First Nations’ Fiction Films: Shelley Niro, Jeff Barnaby, and Yves Sioui Durand,” American Review of Canadian Studies, 43.2, pp. 267-282.
Vizenor, Gerald (1999), Manifest Manners: Narratives on Postindian Survivance, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.