To non-Native audiences, Rhyme for Young Ghouls will seem mythological in its presentation. The film establishes a real-world framework around a story based on the conventions of popular genres. A title at the beginning of the film tells us that Canada’s Indian Act was responsible for giving Indian agents sweeping power to place them in boarding schools, where physical abuse was widespread.
The fictional reservation where the story takes place, the Red Crow Reserve, is filmed like a post-apocalyptic landscape, where the Indians are “zombies” because of the drugs they buy from teenage Mi’gMaq girl Aila (Devery Jacobs) and her uncle Burner (Brandon Oakes). They started selling drugs to survive after Aila’s father Joseph (Glen Gould) was sent to prison. They use the money from their drug enterprise to pay off a sadistic school headmaster, Popper (Mark A. Krupa), to keep Aila out of the country’s notorious boarding school system.
Rhymes for Young Ghouls is haunted by the effects of Canada’s boarding school system, and by the ghosts that follow Aila throughout the film. But like Aila herself, Rhymes for Young Ghouls also has an unapologetic toughness about it. The film tells Aila’s story through an intricate pastiche of myth, magical realism, revenge fantasy, apocalypse and horror films. While in great peril, Aila traverses the land of the dead, and survives.
As in apocalypse and horror films, survival is the name of the game. Aila was abandoned at the age of seven, when her mother committed suicide right before Joseph is sent to prison. When Joseph is released years later, he discovers that she has tight control over her father’s old drug terrority. In order to avoid being sent to the local Indian boarding school, Aila must pay off Popper. When the local authorities are tipped off to a drug deal involving Aila’s friend, Aila’s drug money is stolen. When she hatches a plan to get her money back, Popper becomes the archetypal relentless movie monster, who hunts down Joesph and Aila.
A story told by one of the film’s elders is perfectly representative of the struggles that Aila endures in her struggle for survival. Aila tells a story through an animated that features a hungry, vicious wolf searching a wasteland for food to eat. The wolf comes upon a tree with the dead bodies of Mi’gMaq children hanging by ropes from its branches. Crazed by hunger, the wolf rams the tree, and all the bodies fall from the branches. In a hungry fervor, the wolf devours the bodies of the children, and, by the end of its feast, becomes so ashamed that it cannibalizes itselft. The wolf is a stand-in for the system that swallows up indigenous kids and assimilates them into the dominant culture. The dark wasteland of the elder’s tale consists of a smoggy cityscape of tall buildings, smokestacks, and bare trees. Visually, the tale comes to life right out of a sketchbook that holds Aila’s artwork, a trait that she acquires from her deceased mother (Roseanne Supernault) as a way of showing her continued existence, even after death. The rendering of the elder’s story by Aila with a hellish wolf and an unnatural wasteland give glimpses into the perspective of the world that Aila holds. For her, the world is a dark place for Indians.
A theme of cultural survival is underlined through the presence of Aila’s mother. Inside the movie’s horror allusions, ghosts, contrary to typical horror genre conventions, are not treated as malevolent beings. Aila’s mother acts as a sort of spirit guide. Her mother’s presence in later parts of the film represents the continuity between the present and the past, and the continuity that runs between life and death. The presence of Aila’s mother speaks to the continuation of life that informs many indigenous beliefs, after we’ve left our physical bodies. Ghosts haunt the frames of Rhymes for Young Ghouls, all of them leading back to the personal and historic pain felt by the characters.
Using the Horror Genre to Achieve Indigeneity:
Rhymes for Young Ghouls may be the first truly indigenous horror film. One of the film’s major successes is the way it uses aspects of the horror genre without trivializing the real-life horrors that inspired Rhymes. The film’s tough-as-nails nature allows Aila to do battle with Popper, and presents her struggle as one between good and evil, between the oppressed and their colonizers, between knife-wielding slasher and potential victim. The broad characterization of Popper as a typical horror movie villain works better than it does in traditional horror films because the characterization is informed by the past trauma that the Mi’gMaq have experienced through exposure to the boarding school system and government policies. The film takes many of its ideas from the horror genre, but, unlike other films that parody or riff on horror conventions, the convention address the institutional abuses indigenous people have suffered in Canada.
Mi’gMak writer/director Jeff Barnaby make the referential genre elements work because his film is so genuine. According to the film’s press notes, Barnaby was inspired by all of the violence and abandonment that he witnessed as a child. One of the worst tendencies New Millennium film is the ironic use of genre elements and the similar use of structural flourishes like bad projection, lens flares, scratchy frames, and bad sound that are ironically appropriated from grindhouse movies and B-movies of the past. The worst culprits of this style are filmmakers like Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Rob Zombie, and Ana Lily Amirpour, whose films often make reference to the exploitation and B-movies that inspire their work, but serve no end beyond their usage as personal references. In this way, their images are not attached in any way to the real world. And so they just float in an existential void, useful only to fulfill a smug sense of ironic distance. And what’s so problematic about these directors’ ironic appropriation of B-grade mistakes and genre elements in movies like Death Proof, Kill Bill, and the insufferably hip A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is that the referential styles of these postmodernist movies show no personal sense of identity, history, or politics in the same way Barnaby demonstrates in Rhymes for Young Ghouls.
Barnaby takes elements from the horror genre and infuses them with life experiences that give genre appropriations greater meaning. Barnaby’s stories are informed by his Mi’gMak background, and they are genuine expressions of his people’s’ experiences, filtered through different film forms. This is why the slasher/monster movie dynamic of Popper pursuing Aila works so well; their conflict is infused with the history and pain of real people.
“Every beating they take recharges their fuel cells, and instead of tapping out they dust themselves off and knuckle up and move forward. We are all of us survivors, descendants of this Indian.”
Barnaby’s use of these elements are redeemed by his motivation to tell a story about a type of Indian who stares loss in the face and keeps charging forward. Native American tribes have seen their worlds end, but, according to Barnaby, there is a kind Indian who just won’t take it, and won’t give up. Barnaby wrote in the film’s press notes, “Every beating they take recharges their fuel cells, and instead of tapping out they dust themselves off and knuckle up and move forward. We are all of us survivors, descendants of this Indian.” Aila is that Indian. Like many films that achieve indigeneity through genuine cultural expression, Rhymes for Young Ghouls is about survival.
-Scott Pewenofkit, Jr.