Rhymes For Young Ghouls (Jeff Barnaby, 2013) Canada
Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a tale of revenge set within the context of Canada’s Residential School era, during which older generations of Indians faced systematic oppression from the state which resulted from a policy that was effectively genocidal. Today’s indigenous communities are still reeling from the effects of these policies (one of which is cited in the opening of the film) today.
Their collective experience is summed up in a quote made by the film’s main character- Aila- who says, “This is what brings my people together…the art of forgetfulness,” when speaking about the tendency for members of their community to become reliant upon drugs and alcohol as an escape from the traumatic memories that were consequential of white subjugation. A theme that is confronted throughout the film.
Rhymes For Young Ghouls is Mi’kmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s freshman feature (having two short films already to his credit)- and he’s done a damn fine job with it. On top of writing and directing this emotional roller-coaster, he also recorded the original score himself (playing a number of instruments in the process). His talents are clearly multifaceted.
The film tells the story of an extended M’ikmaq family living on the Red Crow Rez, who are being persistently harassed by a sadistically racist Indian Agent named Popper (Mark Krupa). The Father is played by Glen Gould, the uncle is played by Brandon Oakes, and the main character, Aila, is played by the truly stunning Devery Jacobs (who was looking drop dead sexy in her dress at TIFF).
It all begins when Aila’s brother is accidentally killed during a drunk driving incident. Feeling responsible, Aila’s mother is unable to cope with the grief and ends up committing suicide. Her father is subsequently arrested for the murder, and an about 10-year old Aila is left to fend for herself.
The film then fast forwards to Aila’s teenage years. She is no longer a little girl, rather, the head of a relatively successful drug dealing operation. Aila runs and organizes everything: buying weed from the town’s old woman, employing her friends to make the deals, and making sure the “truancy taxes” are paid off to the Indian Agents each month. If these truancy taxes are not paid accordingly, the kids will find themselves “disappeared” into the Residential School system.
Aila and her friends are constantly under the watchful eye of Popper, a racist Indian Agent who exploits every given oppourtunity to violently beat and extort them. In the Q&A Krupa said he based the Popper character off of Ude from Schindler’s List…but he’s more reminiscent of Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet, if you ask me. Really over the top, in a dramatically sadistic sense.
Popper is always using COINTELPRO tactics against the Native community in an attempt to turn them against one another. The film’s plot is derived from an incident where Popper beats up and robs Milch, one of the local kids that works for Aila. He steals all of Milch’s dope and money- the money they need to re-up and pay off their truancy taxes.
Popper’s hatred for Aila leads back to his relationship with her father, Joseph. Popper and Joseph went to Residential School together. One time, when Popper was getting beaten up by two of the other students, Joseph intervened and knocked the kids out. Despite saving him, Joseph was set to be punished by the Priest- with Popper carrying out the actual beating. Ever since, he’s seemed to have it out for Joseph.
After the robbery incident, Aila- with help from her little buddy on the inside- develops a plan to break into the school, steal their money back, and reap vengeance on Popper- who really deserves his comeuppance after stomping her face.
But before the crew gets the chance to put their plan into action, Joseph is released from jail. This marks the occurrence of a number of incidents- including the return of Aila’s zombie mother and brother- which are meant to leave you reflecting on the post-colonial Native American experience. It all culminates with Joseph being beaten and re-arrested, for taking a boat out on the water during a ban, and Aila being thrown into the Residential School.
Lucky for her, her little buddy breaks her out, and the crew are able to put their plan into action- after smoking a joint first, of course. Dawned in masks they break into the school, free Aila’s dad, and pull off their hilarious plot to get back at Popper.
But the obsessive psychopath that he is, Popper isn’t able to laugh it off. Instead, he comes back for them wielding a shotgun, hellbent on raping Aila. I won’t reveal how it all goes down, but I will say that it has an explosive conclusion which hadthe audience cheering at the screening I attended.
The film provides commentary on a number of social issues that currently affect our Native communities, like alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, suicide, and the destruction of their culture. Though, it seems to lay the blame for these problems- at least partially- at the feet of both parties (if I read it correctly).
When all is said and done, Rhymes For Young Ghouls is a really excellent film. It’s funny, stylish and exciting, yet utterly disturbing and really sad at parts. Barnaby has managed to fashion a story that is set 50-60 years ago with a modern vibe that will appeal to mainstream audiences. I really feel that this film can be enjoyed by a diverse crowd of people, if given a chance. It would be nice to see it get distribution into some Canadian theatres. Highly recommended!
This article was first posted on September 15, 2013