Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet discusses her feature debut Night Raiders, which looks at motherhood and the horrors of residential schools through a sci-fi lens.
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The logline for Cree filmmaker Danis Goulet’s sci-fi feature debut, Night Raiders, sounds eerily familiar: “In a post-apocalyptic future, children are considered state property. Separated from their parents, they are trained in boarding schools to fight for the regime.” Is it sci-fi or the history of how Canada has treated Indigenous People? To paraphrase Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby, the apocalypse already happened for Indigenous People.
While Barnaby’s genre-crossing Rhymes for Young Ghouls looked at the horrors of residential schools — the schools that Indigenous children in Canada were sent to after being torn from their parents — from the perspective of a teenager determined to avoid going to one, Goulet uses sci-fi to look at this from the perspective of a mother forced to give up her child. In Night Raiders, Goulet crafts a poverty-stricken world of the near-future where surveillance drones are everywhere, a militaristic police force is under constant patrol, and nowhere is safe. Here, all children — not just Indigenous children — are permanently separated from their parents and sent to “academies,” that look like prisons, for schooling that seems synonymous with military training. That also means that the multicultural, multi-racial ‘student’ body looks like the film’s audience, which makes the school pledge, “One nation, one language,” particularly creepy. Ironically, the absolutely horrifying “academies” still seem almost paradisal compared to Canada’s residential schools.
“When there’s something you really want to say, you can hit it in almost a harder way in genre because you’re not constrained by reality,” Goulet told me. “I think you can counter skepticism when you’re dealing with real history.” In Night Raiders, Goulet replaces Canada’s RCMP (or “Mounties”), an international symbol of friendly and adorable police, with what they were really designed to do: hold militaristic power over vulnerable (in real life, Indigenous) people, using violence without a second thought, in an attempt at cultural genocide. The move to sci-fi also allows Goulet to tell a more contemporary story of Indigeneity, inspired by Standing Rock and Idle No More, in which Indigenous People around the world are uniting against global colonialism, and young people are changing the world. That ethos dovetails nicely with the story behind the film, which is an Indigenous co-production between Canada and New Zealand.
The multihyphenate Elle Máijá-Tailfeathers (who played the last woman standing in Barnaby’s post-apocalyptic zombie film, Blood Quantum, and whose feature The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open screened at Berlinale in 2019) stars as Niska, a Cree woman with experience living on the land, fighting to protect her daughter from being sent to an ‘academy’ since this would guarantee their permanent separation. After years spent avoiding the police and living in the bush, her twelve-year-old daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), gets a bad wound that becomes infected. Without access to medicine or medical care, Niska is forced to give up Waseese to the authorities in order to save her life. Little does she know that the ‘academies’ aren’t actually the world-class educational institutions that the government’s propaganda, as seen on screens around the town, claims it to be.
As Niska deals with guilt for not being able to protect her daughter, she’s torn between trying to find a better life for herself by moving to the country her daughter would be patrolling after graduation — which means getting past the wall at the border — where she would be able to be reunited with her daughter on graduation, or rescuing her daughter now. That mission is complicated by a deadly virus that threatens to kill everyone where Niska was living, and an unexpected encounter with a group of Cree activists (helped by a Maori man and other Indigenous people) who inform Niska about the real dangers Waseese is facing.
For most of her life, Niska has been a loner; in recent years, living off the land in isolation with her daughter. It’s not a glamorous existence but a hard-won one, where there’s a constant risk of both being found and not having enough to eat. She’s smart and resourceful, always aware of her surroundings, and doing everything she can to protect her daughter. It’s not until she loses her daughter that she finds community among people who will help rescue Wasseese, in exchange for Niska’s promise to care for and lead the other children to safety. It’s also the first time that Niska is surrounded by Cree language speakers, as someone who has never been fluent. Among the chaos and hardship, she finds a home. This also means the film is packed full of a who’s who of Indigenous actors, including Violet Nelson (The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open) and the great Gail Maurice (Québexit, Trickster), who is also a Cree language speaker and a filmmaker.
With very little money, Goulet has crafted a dystopian universe that’s as convincing and brutal in its totalitarianism as The Hunger Games — with which it shares drones, a surveillance state, a failed Civil War, and a hope for the future embodied in young people. The similarities stop there, though, because Goulet has taken concepts from the Cree language and culture, and transformed them into sci-fi ideas. Unlike so many dystopian films, this isn’t centred around the suffering of children, but the suffering of parents who had no choice but to give up their children to suffering. It also means Niska is that rarest of action heroes: a mother who lives to protect her daughter, and young people, and who is thus crucial for the survival of her entire community. Goulet achieves much of the film’s impressive world-building through well-chosen locations (with help from production designer Zazu Myers) and incredible sound design that evokes the scary world we only glimpse pieces of.
Before the film’s world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, I sat down with Goulet via Zoom to talk about the opportunities for Indigenous storytelling on film and in genre, specifically, the joys of world-building, and getting inspired by the Cree language and culture.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of Night Raiders?
Danis Goulet: I started working on Night Raiders back in 2013. It was around the same time that I was making a short film called Wakening, which was a monster movie about two classic Cree characters from oral stories placed in a near future, where North America was under occupation. It was my first time, as a filmmaker, moving into the genre space. Coming off of making observational, realist drama, it was just incredibly liberating to move into the genre space. So I started to write Night Raiders.
I was interested in genre as a way to talk about the impacts of colonisation on Indigenous People, which all of my work explores, in some way. Everything that has been written into the imaginary future of the film has already happened, and has to do specifically with policies that were inflicted upon Indigenous People throughout history.
I started to craft a story that was very focused around a young girl and her mother who are on the run. The story imagines a post-Civil War in North America, where children are property of the state. The mom and daughter are on the run trying to prevent her from being taken [by the state].
Of course, that was a direct allegory for the residential school system in Canada. I [was writing the script when] the Truth and Reconciliation Commission came out with their report saying that an Indigenous child had more chance of dying [by] going into a residential school than a Canadian soldier had going into World War II. I felt like this history isn’t talked about or explored enough. But also, sometimes, there can be a fatigue around these very heavy historical issues. For me, genre was incredibly exciting as a way into talking about these things.
Around the time I started writing it, I was really inspired by what youth were doing, both online and in activist movements. As a part of my research, I went to Standing Rock. That was an amazing experience that really informed my writing. I started writing right around the time that Idle No More was happening, which was an Indigenous activist movement. I found all of that very inspiring, and the youth especially: their courage, and their ability to be seen and heard in ways that were really exciting. All of those things were threads that wove into creating the story.
7R: In what way did you find genre liberating? What opportunities did it allow that aren’t there with a typical historical drama?
Danis Goulet: You’re not constrained by reality in quite the same way. When there’s something you really want to say, you can hit it in almost a harder way in genre because you’re not constrained by reality. I think you can counter skepticism when you’re dealing with real history.
People could have a perspective where maybe [the traumas inflicted on Indigenous People in history] wasn’t as bad as you’re making it out to be. But in genre, you can make it as bad as you want it to be. You can hit on truths in this incredibly truthful way.
To me, the story had to be driven by the emotional connection between the mother and daughter. But the genre elements are just so cool and exciting. It really allows you to come at this all in a very fresh way.
7R: Can you tell me about the choice to tell Night Raiders from the mother’s perspective, primarily? We tend to think about the horrors of experiencing residential schools and not the horrors of having to send your child there.
Danis Goulet: Maybe, by virtue of the fact that I’m a mother that was writing this, I [was thinking] about my own children and my relationship to them.
In my research, when I listened to some of the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] hearings, one of the things that was so striking to me was the shame that parents felt about having lost their children, and in some ways, thinking that it was their fault, when in fact, it was a systemic policy that was being forced upon them. Indigenous families had to send their children [to residential schools] by law. That happened to seven generations of Indigenous families.
It was very striking the way parents blamed themselves in spite of something that was, in fact, systemic that was happening to them. There was something about that emotional terrain that was just devastating. I think that really drew me to write about what parents experience because it’s so complex for them. They actually do feel responsible for their children. They feel like they didn’t protect them, and they didn’t do enough. All of that is so heart-wrenching.
7R: Is that something that genre helped? In Night Raiders, you don’t feel like there is any way that Niska could get around giving up her daughter. I wonder if you were telling this story in a more historical context, it might be harder for modern audiences to understand that you just didn’t have a choice.
Danis Goulet: Yeah. I think what this [genre] world allowed me to do was place all populations, not just Indigenous People, under these incredibly oppressive circumstances, so that they could imagine, for themselves, What if we lived in a world in which…? This is a poverty-stricken world, and there’s this charity effort of this far away oppressive force. Soldiers are everywhere, and they’re controlling all aspects of life.
There are still so many people in Canada that aren’t even aware of the past system where Indigenous People were constrained to reserves, and they needed a pass from the Indian Agent in order to leave, which is almost like a passport. These things are hard to imagine.
When you go into genre, you actually can just create the world, and then it is being imagined. And then, you ask people to imagine how it feels to live under those oppressive circumstances, where it’s a police state, and there are soldiers around at all times.
I also thought it was interesting to look at different regimes that present themselves in benevolent ways. It’s like, “We’re just here to help.” In Canada, we think of ourselves as such a polite country, and as a country that didn’t have any bad intentions, that was actually trying to help Indigenous People. Whereas from an Indigenous perspective, it’s like, “No, that was an attempted genocide.”
You can hit these points when you create an imaginary world. It opens up all the opportunities to set up all of the circumstances and then bring the characters into it.
The world-building part of it was really fun. The story doesn’t even take place that far into the future. All I did was write an imaginary North American political future going thirty years forward. I used every US election as a benchmark to imagine what would happen. I imagined a coalition of very far-right extremists with the middle-right taking over America, and then eventually, taking over Canada, and then eventually, there being a North-American-wide Civil War.
That actually came out of research I was doing about the rise of Hitler in the ‘30s. He was very extremist, but he was able to get elected by forming a coalition with folks that were more moderate. It creates this sort of perfect storm of leaders like him to rise. I had actually written that Hillary Clinton was gonna win. And then, it was the backlash to her election that would create this swell of far-right extremism. I just really didn’t imagine it would happen so quickly, the way we saw it.
I was also thinking about the changing demographics in North America, and thinking there’s going to be a white supremacist backlash. That’s always what happens when power is challenged. I started working with that idea and writing an imaginary history where a far-right extremist [government] takes over and starts a war.
7R: Can you tell me more about this research process for Night Raiders? In the press notes, it said you were doing consultations with elders and community members in both Canada and New Zealand. And you’ve just talked about researching Hitler, and watching TRC hearings.
Danis Goulet: This story is obviously told from a Cree and Métis perspective. I’m Cree and Métis, and I originally come from Saskatchewan. All of my films concern things to do with my culture, in some way. As Indigenous People, we’re dealing with one-hundred years of misrepresentation on screen. We’re always trying to counter that. We want to try to do it in the right way.
That always means, culturally, getting the guidance of elders. I worked with my dad a lot, even in early development. He’s a Cree language speaker. We just talk conceptually about things. I’ll go home, sit at the kitchen table, and hit record on a device. I’ll start asking him about things in the language. Or I’ll take an idea, and I’ll talk about it. A lot of the research that I did with him formed some of the concepts and the ideas around some of the things that read in the film as sci-fi elements, but they’re really taken from Cree thought.
In a lot of genre movies, we see the trope of the AI that gains consciousness, and at the moment that happens, all is lost, because it’s going to come and kill us. I wanted to play with that trope, to really question whether or not that is a view of AI, or whether or not we might have some kind of respect for them as beings, if, in fact, that’s what they turn into. I just found that to be a really interesting question.
In the Cree language, the way things break down, there’s a categorization of animate and inanimate. In the language, rocks are animate. They’re talked about as having a life force. That was, conceptually, really interesting. When you think of what machines are made of, they’re made of the same minerals and rocks. It really played into this idea of AI consciousness, and whether or not we dare regard them as beings worthy of respect and even care. It’s just a different way into it and a way to subvert and play with that trope.
7R: It’s really wonderful that there are so many characters speaking Cree in the film. Can you tell me about that?
Danis Goulet: So much of that funnels through my dad because I’m not a Cree language speaker. We also worked with elder Pauline Shirt, who’s a really respected elder here in the Toronto Community. She actually does work with the ImagineNative Film and Media Arts Festival, among many others. She’s originally from out west, so she’s a Cree speaker, and her sister is a linguist. She brought all of this incredible knowledge and teachings to the film, as well.
This idea that is talked about in the film of a guardian, ogunuheneechigew. That was something that I talked about with my dad. He spoke about how, from a Cree values perspective, a person that was regarded as a guardian was someone that was tasked with looking after others. This care for others is really highly regarded. I thought that was interesting, especially in relation to children. Sometimes, in the Euro-Western lens, children are to be dismissed or brushed away. And I think there’s something really beautiful [in prizing the care of children].
We haven’t seen a lot of portrayals of women on screen that are tasked with looking after children, especially in an action movie type of way. It would probably be regarded as an unsexy task to go take a bunch of children to safety. My thinking about this was coming from the values that come from that concept in Cree, which is to look after others and how highly regarded that is. If you are one of those people, you are highly regarded for what you do in your care for others.
7R: You mentioned film as an extension of the oral tradition. How do you see it that way?
Danis Goulet: Film is an incredibly powerful vehicle for Indigenous storytelling. Indigenous stories are the original stories of this land. I grew up hearing them around the fire.
My dad talks about a story that he found out through another elder who he met in his travels, because he was trying to figure out why there was a name for the North in the Cree language, which is called kîwêhtin. It relates to the north wind. And he heard a story from an elder where he learned that it was actually in reference to the glacier. The glacier was in North America over 10,000 years ago. So it means that there’s a story passed down through people that references that. That is so beautiful and poetic, and it connects us — whether you’re Indigenous or not — to this land in a way that I think is potentially really powerful.
For me, growing up as a kid in Saskatchewan, I never knew you could have a job in film. I didn’t dream of that. But my family had a little camera just for family stuff — a little camcorder. I used to put it on my shoulder and film everything. What film can do, as both a visual and an audio medium, is so perfect, in my mind, for this kind of storytelling.
7R: Can you tell me about the sound in Night Raiders? It’s so important for world-building and is so evocative.
Danis Goulet: The sound was incredible. A lot of the sound folks were actually based down in New Zealand. We were this international co-production. By the time we got to that stage of the film, COVID had hit. We were editing, and then there was the shutdown, and then we were trying to remotely finish. But luckily, our sound folks were all down in New Zealand.
Our sound designer, Michelle Child, is incredible, and has worked on amazing films. I worked with her and her partner. There were also the composers, Moniker. They had worked on Taika Waititi’s Hunt for the Wilderpeople. They’re incredible musicians that also work as film composers.
I did all of the sound work, with the exception of the mix which was brought back to Toronto, remotely with these incredibly talented folks. They understood how important sound was to create so much of the tension in the film. There are certain things where you really have to imagine what things will sound like in the future, and they brought a lot of really cool ideas.
We also brought in an Indigenous vocalist, Michelle St. John, who’s here in Toronto, and she’s an artist, a singer and also a filmmaker. We had her record a whole bunch of different sounds with her voice, and then we wove those sounds into the fabric of the sound design. It’s really subtle. You can’t tell it’s a voice. It just sounds like… it’s even hard to describe. I wanted something really evocative but that was also subtle. So I chose to work with an Indigenous artist to help add something that felt unique, especially to really important moments of the film where there’s communication happening. In those moments, it was important to have something really unique to punctuate that.
7R: How did you work with your production designer to create the world through all the sets in Night Raiders?
Danis Goulet: We shot all around Southern Ontario. We were based in Hamilton for a while where Niska’s apartment is. We found this beautiful cedar forest, close to Hamilton, for the camp scenes.
The production designer I was working with is Zazu Meyers [who also did Mouthpiece (2018), Paper Year (2018), and The Grizzlies (2018)], and she is just so incredible. She was so excited to start building and creating the world. She also worked so hard on the cultural piece, in conjunction with elders and other knowledge keepers, to try to do it in the right way.
So [Zazu], [the director of photography] Daniel Grant [who also shot The Rest of Us (2019) and Into the Forest (2015)], and I would go on location scouts, and we would start building the worlds in our mind. We would stand in a space, and we’re like, “Okay, this could go there. And this could go there.”
I’m a little bit of a VFX skeptic. I was so lucky to work with Park Road down in New Zealand because they’re such an incredible VFX team. They’re so world class. Some of the set extensions and things that they embellish with VFX — it’s so incredible to go through that process. I’d done some VFX work in my previous films, but this was a total treat to imagine how you embellish sets that already exist.
The film is a Canada-New Zealand co-production. What did that bring to the table? As Indigenous filmmakers, we’re a part of a global film community that meets all over the world at different film festivals. We’ve known each other for years. Very early in the development, I thought, what would it be like to have a Maori character as a part of the story? Would that be okay? Would it be strange?
So I took a very early draft of the script to my friend, Briar Grace-Smith, who’s an Indigenous screenwriter down in New Zealand. I had her read it, and I got her thoughts. She was really encouraging and felt that it made sense in the context of the story.
Later, when I went to Standing Rock, there was this one victory where they were able to stop the pipeline, when Obama was still president. There was this huge celebration in Standing Rock, and the first folks that were thanked on the live feed I was watching were the Maori delegation that had come up to stand in solidarity with the people up at Standing Rock.
There are so many ways in which we, as Indigenous People, stand in solidarity together, and we’re connected together. I wanted to express that in the film. Very organically, that meant that the idea of a co-production would be really exciting, if we could actually pull it off.
We started talking to people in New Zealand. I’d known Taika Waititi from years back from having shorts on the festival circuit at the same time. He also participated in an ImagineNative initiative back when I was involved with the festival. I asked him if he would be interested in coming on as an EP [Executive Producer], and he was.
An Indigenous co-production is such a natural extension of the many ties that we have already. So many people have been dreaming about making these things happen for many years. We were really thrilled to be the first international Indigenous co-production between the two countries.
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