Danis Goulet’s stolen children allegory takes a sci-fi look at residential schools

Film | Jorge Ignacio Castillo | October 7, 2021

Night Raiders
Opens Friday 8, Theatres

The tragedy of residential schools has been brought to the big screen numerous times usually earnestly and straightforward. Night Raiders takes a different route: it uses sci-fi tropes to dig deeper and more critically on the motivations and the effects of Canada’s disgraceful assimilation program.

Night Raiders follows a Cree woman, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and her teenage daughter Wasese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) as they attempt to stay off the grid by hiding deep in the Canadian wilderness. The year is 2043: a virus has devastated the continent and the U.S. has absorbed Canada which is ruled by a military dictatorship. Children are expected to join a state-sponsored academy to be brainwashed re-educated.

Despite her best efforts, Wasese is seized by the state police. Desperate to get her daughter back, Niska reluctantly joins an Indigenous underground group that wants to free the children, although the odds against them are high.

The parallels with the residential school system are plentiful yet organic to the story. It’s as if there was a playbook for erasing cultures by the way of indoctrination.

The world in which the story of Niska and Wasese unfolds is rich and complex, but reminiscent enough of other dystopian dramas (Children of Men, The Hunger Games) to establish a shorthand. Writer-director Danis Goulet does a remarkable job giving cultural significance to what is in essence an action film without forcing it. The restless handheld footage adds to the grim, gritty setup and mixes seamlessly with hordes of foreboding surveillance drones.

The La Ronge-born Cree/Métis filmmaker makes the transition from shorts to full-length features seamlessly. Among the executive producers of Night Raiders is a name impossible to miss: Taika Waititi. Goulet met the Maori wunderkind 15 years ago, when both had shorts at the Sundance Film Festival. The relationship continued thanks to their involvement with ImagiNATIVE and led to the film becoming the first Canadian/New Zealand Indigenous co-production: “There’s a tight-knit global community of Indigenous filmmakers who have all grown up together”, Goulet explains.

Danis zoomed-in from Toronto, where she currently resides.

Night Raiders’ dialogue is both believable and deep, with some killer lines like “as long as we have one piece of land, they’ll always come from us”. How did you workshop it?

I’ve been told I’m a spare writer. Night Raiders is the most dialogue-heavy movie I’ve ever made. This is an imaginary world and at times the characters are talking about things that sound fantastical. I felt challenged to work [the dialogue] in a way that feels real and grounded and give it gravity, even if they’re talking about conceptual things.

The film’s villain (The State) is an anonymous, faceless entity. Why did you choose this approach, as opposed to making the antagonist an individual?

I wanted to look at the oppression and colonial policies that have been inflicted upon Indigenous peoples as systemic. While there were people behind these systems, I didn’t want there to be an easy outlet, like the designs of a Trump-like figure. It was important that the evil felt systemic. We have a narrative of Canada as a polite country, but when we look into the project of colonization, turns out it’s a project of genocide. It was presented in this friendly package — “We’re here to help, to do good for the people, civilize Indigenous children as a way to give them a better future”— and yet, when the children were actually sent into residential schools, they were neglected, beaten, abused and killed.

Were you surprised about how well-suited science fiction was to address the subject of residential schools?

I always felt many genre tropes lend themselves easily to Indigenous experiences. We could look at Star Wars and think of ourselves as the small band of rebels against the Empire. The genre space opens-up certain artistic freedoms and allows your message to hit harder.

The world you created for Night Raiders is rich enough to merit further exploration. Are you planning to revisit it?

It took so many years to make, I haven’t thought about expanding it further, but since this world is now established and I love all these characters so much, it feels like it would make sense.

If you had $100,000,000 extra in your budget, how would you have used it?

I would have gone way bigger on the final bit of the movie. We had a decent budget, but when you’re trying to build a world, scale helps make it believable.

Missing Stories

While Night Raiders was largely filmed in Toronto, the opening shot was captured in Northern Saskatchewan by Goulet’s cousin using a drone camera. The filmmaker imagined her main character Niska as coming from the north, hence the importance of that establishing shot.

The filmmaker got permission from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band to use the name Kitsaki for the rebel camp and included La Ronge-inspired easter eggs, like a reference to the legendary bar The Zoo. Suffice it to say Saskatchewan remains on her mind.

Would you have shot a larger portion of the film in Saskatchewan had the tax credits been available?

Absolutely. I got my first job on a film set (the CBC miniseries Big Bear) in 1998 because of the existence of the tax credit. I never would have undertaken this journey if I hadn’t been given this opportunity. I always want to tell stories about Saskatchewan: there’s a very specific context of anti-Indigenous racism that’s felt succinctly in the Prairies that I’ve always been interested in exploring. Specificity of place is very important, but because the tax credits weren’t there, it made impossible from a budgetary standpoint to shoot in Saskatchewan.

Do you feel there are Saskatchewan-based stories not being told because there are no tax credits?

When the tax credit went away, it bottomed-out the industry. The whole reason I became a filmmaker was because I felt I wasn’t being reflected anywhere and that the stories that were told about Indigenous Peoples were perpetuating harmful stereotypes. We don’t see Saskatchewan reflected on screen very often and empowering storytellers is essential to challenge and change these narratives.