Blood Quantum star Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is making art in a time of substantial change
Vancouver-based Elle-Máija Tailfeathers stars in the new film Blood Quantum. Elevation Pictures / PNG
Jeff Barnaby’s hit Indigenous indie horror flick Blood Quantum splatters more gore and goo around the sets than a meat packing plant floor sees on a double-shift. Vancouver-based Elle-Máija Tailfeathers spends a lot of the film covered in it too. But the activist director, writer and actor says it was a blast being blood-soaked.
Putting a twist on the standard zombie apocalypse blood, guts and gore genre, the film also packs in plenty of social commentary about the history of Indigenous and settler relations in between the servings of brain salad. For Blood Quantum, when all mayhem breaks loose in a remote Mi’kmaq reserve of Red Crow, only the Indigenous inhabitants are immune from the pandemic outbreak.
Being of both Blackfoot and Sámi backgrounds, Tailfeathers knows the Indigenous experience in both North America and Europe. This has given the award-winning graduate of both the Vancouver film School and UBC a unique outlook in her many films which have covered topics ranging from fracking practices in Canada (Bloodland) to murdered and missing Indigenous women in Canada (A Red Girl’s Reasoning) to a feature on the history of the land that is now known as Vancouver made in partnership with the Musqueam First Nation titled cəsnaʔəm, the city before the city.
Like many artists in the Indigenous film and TV scene in Canada, she works out of Vancouver, while also spending time in both the Blood Reserve in Alberta and in Sami territory in Norway.
“I’m lucky that I learned Sami by growing up there when I was young, but I don’t speak Blackfoot, which is a shame,” said Tailfeathers. “It’s a really hard language to learn. But it’s on my bucket list sometime down the way when I have time.”
Vancouver-based actor Elle-Máija Tailfeathers. Submitted image / PNG
Time is not something the multi-talented writer/director/filmmaker/actor has a lot of. Since moving to Vancouver in 2005 to pursue acting, she spent a number of years working steadily in Hollywood North. However, the industry didn’t deliver what she wanted it too, which lead to her pursuing a degree in First Nations Studies with a minor in Women and Gender Studies in 2011. Getting into directing followed that degree.
“I grew really frustrated with the industry being a woman, an Indigenous woman and a woman of colour because it was very challenging,” she said. “To feel so little agency and control working with so many gross stereotypes of Indigenous people in films being made by non-Indigenous people. So that was when I went back to UBC and, while I was there, I learned how to operate a camera, use editing software and made my first short film.”
Spending her time between making her own projects, often documentaries, and taking assorted acting jobs keeps her very busy. Blood Quantum was another such gig, but one that was quite different from the others in so many ways. Working with Mi’kmaq director Jeff Barnaby, whose previous film Rhymes for Young Ghouls was one of her favourites, was a thrill.
“I jumped at the opportunity to work with Jeff and watch him work, and every single member of the cast was a blast to work with,” she said. “I’ve never done a horror/zombie genre film before and it was such a wild experience of dead bodies and fake blood everywhere and all the weapons. It was a real dream come true to do and so ridiculously fun too.”
Tailfeathers loves how Blood Quantum manages to bring the deeply political undertone to a feature that is right in step with standard Grindhouse gore and action. The way that the script slides in scenes such as an outsider trying to bring in an infected blanket into the protected compound or fierce debate about whether a child of Indigenous and settler parents will be immune or infected address moments in history that range from first contact to the present day.
And there is a chainsaw scene for the ages too.
“Every moment was pretty shocking to witness in production and also to witness on screen,” she said. “I only saw the completed film at TIFF for the Midnight Madness screening which was packed with 2,000 people just being wildly enthusiastic in their response to it. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”
She notes that a lot has shifted since she first started and credits the ongoing activism of the Indigenous artists advocating for change, narrative and screen sovereignty over their own stories. Now viewers are seeing the benefits in this long push to change the way Indigenous stories are presented in films ranging from Blood Quantum to the Grizzlies and more. Then there is also the Oscar-winning success of New Zealand Maori/Russian Jewish writer/director/actor Taika Waititi to look towards.
“It’s really wonderful to see the benefits of all that hard work and it makes this a really cool time to be making films and making art,” she said. “The shift in the Canadian film landscape, not just for Indigenous filmmakers, but for filmmakers of colour or people whose voices haven’t traditionally been offered space is the industry is pretty cool. Sure, there is a lot more work to be done, but it’s a very exciting time to be making art at a time of substantial change.”
Proof of the changes can be seen in the very fact that Tailfeathers has upwards of seven new projects coming up and more on the back burner. She says it’s never tiring and always very exciting to be doing the kind of work that she has been banging away at being able to make for the past 15 years. Among the new releases are her feature-length documentary about the opioid crisis in her reserve as well as acting in Cree/Metis filmmaker Danis Goulet’s upcoming Indigenous sci-fi thriller Night Raiders. As it happens, Taika Waititi is the executive producer of that film.
Most of Tailfeathers’ films can be found on viewing platforms such as YouTube. She says that the work Indigenous filmmakers are making will play a part in making sure that Indigenous voices are leading the narrative of the sovereignty and reconciliation movements taking place today.