Night Raiders Danis Goulet

Night Raiders, an Indigenous tale of a dystopian future haunted by the past

Filmmaker Danis Goulet discusses Indigenous futurism and the notion that some communities are already living in the post-apocalypse.

Nearly 10 years ago, Danis Goulet made a short film that would change her destiny. Running at just under 10 minutes and set in the near future, Wakening depicts a society suffocated under a brutal military occupation. A Cree wanderer named Wesakechak searches an urban war zone for the Weetigo, an ancient and dangerous spirit, to help fight the occupiers. Up until this point, Goulet had primarily worked in social realism. For this project, a commission to celebrate the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto, she wanted to incorporate elements of the Cree storytelling tradition without ever being cutesy or folkloric. The result is something raw; it’s a film that reimagines a future, though a dystopic one, where indigenous stories are not only central but thriving.

Now, nearly a decade later, Goulet has released her first feature film, Night Raiders. It’s 2043, and a military occupation controls much of North America. Children are taken from their families and are owned by the state. To get her daughter back, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) joins a band of vigilantes.

Imagining the future for Goulet was a moment of liberation. Bringing these stories to the future was invigorating.

“It was a declaration saying, they’ve always been here, they’re still here. And they will always be here,” she said. “It’s also a declaration about Indigenous presence on the land and the revitalization of our stories, and then them coming out into the world.”

For Goulet, working in genre allowed her to be louder and push things further than she might in a drama. “The genre offers you a layer of protection as well because it’s more fictional.”

Yet, with Night Raiders, Goulet also keeps things grounded. As often as possible, they use natural light and real locations. The environments feel lived in, crowded and dirty. The performance style is naturalistic rather than heightened. The aesthetics draw on the tropes of social realism as much as possible, a look that Goulet developed with her director of photography, Daniel Grant. The “tactility” of spaces was very important to Goulet.

Night Raiders Danis Goulet
Night Raiders director Danis Goulet

Night Raiders also adopts very expressive camera movement that draws the viewer deeper into the subjectivity of its characters. One of the film’s most significant themes, state surveillance, is replicated by a claustrophobic approach to shooting characters.

“A roaming camera stays within a three-foot orbit of the main character at all times. It creates suffocated language where you don’t ever feel like you get any space,” says Goulet. For the audience, it puts us in a position where we feel we are infringing on the characters’ autonomy while also sensing their restless discomfort. It establishes a strange and uncomfortable dance with the viewer, positioning us as oppressive and oppressed. 

For Goulet, surveillance has always been deeply linked to a tool of colonialism. “I remember growing up near activist communities and always knowing there was a van parked outside.” 

Later on, when Goulet joined the protests at Standing Rock, she described the helicopters overhead 24/7. “You feel the anxiety,” she explains. “It’s such a strong assertion of power where you’re down on the ground, and all you can hear is the propellers above your head. It’s psychological, and it agitates you.” These experiences inform the narrative elements at work in Night Raiders and its tense and brutal atmosphere.

Goulet discusses a concept related to Indigenous futurism, and the idea Indigenous communities are already living in the post-apocalypse.

“If you can imagine the worst thing happening to you, it’s invaders who come, take your land, attempt to erase you and your culture. And then you somehow have to learn how to survive that.

“When you think about what the Indian Act did, it robbed communities, agencies of their self-determination to say, ‘This is who belongs to us.’” Night Raiders may be dark, but it also showcases resilience and survival. 

The systematic erasure and genocide of the Indigenous peoples of Canada root their way into Night Raiders in many other forms; the structure of the reserve system, the legacy of residential schools and neglect all find their way into the fabric of the film. 

For Goulet, it’s integral to challenge and look back at our history in an honest way. “We are not the polite nation that we think we are,” she says. “And maybe being polite isn’t something that should even be upheld if that means ‘civilizing’ Indigenous children.” Canada’s policies may not be as obvious as the Americans and the Indian wars, but it’s no less destructive and was “just as an insidious a plan.”

Night Raiders addresses genuine questions and histories present in Canada. It’s a film that invites reflection and celebrates resilience and survival. As a feature debut, it’s a remarkable and astute work that succeeds in world-building and storytelling on an ambitious scale rarely seen in Canadian cinema. And Goulet, at the dawn of her career, is just getting started. ■

Night Raiders opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 8.

Night Raiders, starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart

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