Revenge, corruption, narcotics, family rivalry, Indigenous resistance, and growing up on the rez, delivered with elements of eerie surrealism — Rhymes for Young Ghouls might be the edgiest Native film you'll see all year. In advance of tonight's screening at the ImagineNATIVE Film + Media Arts Festival, its young star, Kawennáhere Devery Jacobs, shared her thoughts on the film and her experience of making it.
This film tells an unconventional story, to put it mildly. What were your reactions when you read the script?
When I first read the synopsis of the story and the character breakdown for Aila, I knew Rhymes for Young Ghouls was going to be something that's never quite been seen before in Native cinema. It was graphic, dark and I was wondering how the hell I would pull it off. But understanding the concepts behind Jeff's writing and what each character is going through came through to me the first time I read it. I think that every Indigenous person from North America or even across the world can understand the collective struggle portrayed in this story. I also saw a lot of resemblance of my own family members in Aila. When first reading the screenplay, I knew this was going to be raw and unforgiving film, but as the process went to production I discovered how beautiful the imagery was, contrasting to the graphic nature of the story.
Jeff Barnaby is an exciting young Native filmmaker — were you familiar with his work before you started on Rhymes for Young Ghouls?
I knew Jeff Barnaby's name before I worked with him, but I hadn't gotten to see any of his works. It was during pre-production of the film that I saw The Colony, with Glen Gould, Kent McQuaid and Kaniehtiio Horn. You could say that really gave me a taste of Jeff's unapologetic style and I knew we'd be making something badass together.
How would you describe the experience of working with him on this film?
Working with Jeff was the best acting learning experience I've ever encountered. He gave all of the actors a lot of freedom when working, and trusted us to go with our guts. We all seemed to be on the same page and understood what message was being sent, and also, if we needed guidance then Jeff was there. I had a lot of fun working on this and I really owe so much to him for everything he's done for me and my career.
Did you have any experiences from growing up there that helped you understand the characters and story?
I am Kanien'keha:ka from Kahnawake, and growing up on the rez definitely helped me to understand the characters and the story. When Jeff first cast me, he told me "I don't want Devery the actor, I want Devery the girl who grew up on the reserve… So if I told you a joke about a dead baby, you would probably laugh." And I would! Jeff hired all actors who grew up on reserves, and this wasn't an accident; there is a certain mentality, a certain sick sense of humor, a way of speaking and an essence that you can't fake or even understand if you didn't grow up on the rez. And I know many people who've experienced the same things that my character Aila has in the movie — especially my mom, who I drew lots of my inspiration from.
Can you talk about the conflict between Aila and Popper, the "corrupt and sadistic" Indian Agent on the reserve? They're characters — but are they also symbols?
Popper represents the Canadian Government and its racist, oppressive ideologies in our history. Aila represents a damaged, imperfect, ass-kicking superhero for the Red Crow reservation and I think the juxtaposition of the two are really a commentary on how Native people were treated in the past, and our refusal to put up with it anymore. And I think this story is something that was needed in today's society; for oblivious Canadians to be shocked and for Native people to be empowered and to gain the control back of our own voices and stories.
What was it like working with such an accomplished cast?
Glen Gould, Brandon Oakes, Roseanne Supernault and Mark A. Krupa were extraordinarily helpful in this process for me. It was my first time leading a film and they really helped me feel comfortable and we seemed to all fall into our character dynamics. When watching the film, I couldn't believe how impressed with everyone I was. Hatskwi, we're talented! Haha. And even for the newcomers like Nathan Alexis, Kenneth D'Ailleboust and Cody Bird, we made a badass heist team and they did a damn good job.
What's next for you?
I have recently signed with management group/production company Circle of Confusion (thanks to Jeff, who they also represent) who are based in New York and Los Angeles. And they've been finding me lots of auditions and I've received many callbacks in the short amount of time I've been with them. I think we really click and I'm looking forward to what will come of it in the future. I am also just finishing up my final semester at John Abbott College in my 3-year Correctional Intervention program, and will be looking at moving to NYC in the fall!