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TIFF Film Review: Jeff Barnaby's "Rhymes for Young Ghouls"

The story of Rhymes for Young Ghouls is well-told, well-paced and nicely poised between moments of tension and tenderness. The frames are well-lit and well composed and the music -- a good portion of which is old-school Delta blues -- perfectly complements the rawness of the film's visual character.
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We are informed by the Oxford English Dictionary that the word "ghoul" derives from an Arabic root whose meaning is to seize. More specific, the term refers to an evil spirit said in Muslim countries to prey on human corpses exhumed from graves. In this case, however, the seizing and the devouring of human beings are crimes of a Christian character and constitute the explicit subjects of Jeff Barnaby's first full-length feature, Rhymes for Young Ghouls, which at 88 minutes -- short by today's standard -- is an economical and engaging story.

The movie begins with a brief setting-up, citing Duncan Campbell Scott's Indian Act amendments of 1921 which made attendance at an Indian Residential School System compulsory for children up to 15 years of age. Set in 1976 on the fictional Red Crow Reservation and filmed in Kahnawake, Rhymes for Young Ghouls focuses on the life of a 13-year-old Mi'gMaq girl, Alia (ably portrayed by Kanien'kehá:ka actress Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs), whose mother is dead and whose father is about to be released from prison.

In the absence of her incarcerated father, a role superbly rendered by Glen Gould, Alia has taken a prominent place in the family business headed by her uncle, Burner. A drug dealer and a drunk -- in summary, and at first glance, a too-common stereotype -- Uncle Burner is nonetheless the most nuanced and developed of the characters: Brandon Oakes manages to portray him as simultaneously sad, funny, likeable, repulsive, downtrodden and independent. Alia for her part is a strong-willed and strong-minded young woman who shows promise as a drug dealer. She dreams of one day leaving the reserve, and indeed she comes across as one of the many people who have left, and who will leave, but without every abandoning either her cultural roots or pride.

Director Barnaby is himself from the Listuguj Mi'gmaq First Nation in Quebec, the community which was the subject of Alanis Obomsawin's 1984 movie Incident at Restigouche. It was Obomsawin who first inspired him to become a director, and along the way he has been inspired by other well-known Canadian directors such as David Cronenberg. Indeed, it is Cronenberg's unique visual style, combining the psychological and physical, which we discern in some of the film's most powerful scenes -- especially the allegorical section employing graphic art to convey the spiritual malaise of Red Crow.

The community's deep and longstanding wounds, to which the principal characters allude throughout the film, originate in the nearby Indian residential school, a fictional institution referred to colloquially as "St. D's." In the real world, the children of Red Crow would in all likelihood have been transported far from the community, but in Rhymes the residential school both physically and psychologically dominates the community like the ghoulish and devouring evil spirit of the movie's title. Barnaby portrays the residential school in the Cronenberg fashion as both a mechanized monster and an organic, human presence, introducing the institution with an other-wordly allegory of a devouring wolf. A living but unreflective machine, the Indian residential school is propelled by its brutal momentum.

The story of Rhymes for Young Ghouls is well-told, well-paced and nicely poised between moments of tension and tenderness. The frames are well-lit and well composed and the music -- a good portion of which is old-school Delta blues -- perfectly complements the rawness of the film's visual character. Barnaby has composed and performed a very competent and effective score (the film, by the way, was completed only about twenty days ago), but the sound editing falls short and at several points in the movie I was unable to understand Alia's voice-overs. Especially in the early scenes, too much unnecessary reliance is put on the music to build up the dramatic tension. This is a slight problem, but it did interfere in my engagement with the story.

Barnaby's screenplay suggests a talent for story-telling, and I look forward with eagerness to his next movie, and yet I felt the movie suffered at points from a lack of nuance. The scenes in the residential school felt perfunctory and heavy-handed, lacking entirely the emotional subtlety of the movie's better scenes. Mark Antony Krupa as the wicked Indian Agent Popper did an able enough job with what he was given, but at the end of the film it becomes apparent that the only purpose of Popper in the film is to set up and fulfill the revenge aspect, in other words to satisfy the audience's bloodthirst. In this sense the movie is much like Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and Inglourious Basterds -- both revenge fantasies that subordinate historical and dramatic considerations to the film's emotional agenda.

The film for instance indulges a gross anachronism: everyone in the community is aware of what exactly goes on in the residential school, and even the young characters refer knowingly to the priests and their sexual crimes. In fact, the deep shame borne by the victims of abuse in these prisons ("inmates" was a term used for decades by school administrators) compelled them to keep their sufferings hidden. My own grandfather said precious little of his years in the Mohawk Institute, better known as the "Mush Hole," and the same was true for the many who hid the abuse from their children and spouses well into the 1990s.

For dramatic reasons, the Indian Agent and the residential school staff are combined, with the result that Popper becomes simply an extension of the institution. While this makes thematic sense, it ignores the discreet and at times competing interests and machinations of the government and the churches. A writer with interest in human drama could do much in this area. Yet only Popper has anything like human agency on the "white" side of affairs, and he comes across as two-dimensional at best. None of the nuns or priests have so much as an identity, having been (like Alia's mother) consigned to nameless oblivion.

At its core, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is an engaging and powerful depiction of survival. Despite the brokenness of people, as well as peoples, chronically under the weight of oppressive institutions and authorities, love and indignation -- always a hopeful indication that one is at least alive to injustice -- persist. Not only these, but humour, much of it I think intended for an "insider" native audience. (Only an Onkwehonwe, for example, could have come up with the brilliant and perceptive joke about Mi'gmaq people wearing headdresses.) Courage, says one of the characters, is sometimes gritting your teeth and moving forward when you don't know what is going to happen. As it turns out, the residential school did not manage to seize and devour us all. The film closes with the question "What are we going to do now?" In 2013, many of us are asking just that.

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