Movies and books about dystopian futures are generally cautionary tales, warnings about the poisonous directions the world could turn unless we change our ways. Night Raiders, a surprisingly assured feature debut from Saskatchewan’s Danis Goulet, is set in a military dictatorship in 2043. But its viewpoint isn’t so much predictive as reflective of a dystopia that existed in our past.
We see a world recovering from a war, and we must assume the bad guys won. In this world, children are routinely taken from their parents to be raised as wards of the state, where they will be brainwashed into becoming loyal soldiers.
We find the Cree mother Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) intent on avoiding that fate for her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart). She has successfully hidden her daughter off the grid for 11 years, living off the land beyond the reach of the state and its swarms of surveillance drones.
But Niska’s luck runs out when Waseese is injured. Niska’s journey to a ruined city and a dotty ally (Amanda Plummer) proves fruitless in a bid to treat Waseese’s wound.
She must give up her daughter to the authorities to save her life.
But hope is not lost. Niska joins an underground band of mostly Indigenous freedom fighters intent on sneaking children from the academy where Waseese is being held. Because of an elder’s vision, it is believed that Niska may be the one person who may be able to guide the reclaimed children on a trek to freedom. The reluctant Niska strikes a deal: she will take on that mission, once Waseese has been brought back to her.
But in the meantime, there are intimations that Waseese’s indoctrination may be taking hold, especially since her talents have been noticed by the academy’s icy headmistress (Suzanne Cyr).
Night Raiders was originally supposed to shoot in Manitoba, but ended up shooting in Ontario, particularly Hamilton, and one has to admit Goulet makes excellent use of that city’s blighted cityscapes. The cloudy-cold vistas here recall the world of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2006 thriller Children of Men, likewise a dystopian nightmare of adults brought to ruin by the large-scale absence of children.
Of course, being a Canadian film, Night Raiders lacks that film’s star power and studio-powered production values. Yet the movie prevails on its creative ingenuity. The cast of mostly Indigenous actors, including Alex Tarrant as a Maori warrior (representing the film’s New Zealand production partnership) frame the future story in the specific past of residential schools and the ‘60s scoop. We must come to terms, the movie says, with a dystopia that already happened.
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers may lack the name recognition of Clive Owen, but she does effectively drive the movie on her compelling, weight-of-the-world gravitas.
With the legacy of residential schools still being uncovered with every new discovery of unmarked graves, how pertinent this movie is: Prologue is past.