In a morning phone interview from her home in Toronto, filmmaker Danis Goulet admitted she was still feeling the high from the previous evening at the Toronto International Film Festival, where her first feature film Night Raiders drew a rapturous standing ovation on Friday, Sept. 10. That response came on top of TIFF making her the 2021 recipient of TIFF’s Emerging Talent Award.
“It was really an incredible and emotional night,” Goulet said. “It felt like a combination of so many things coming together.
“My parents were here from Saskatchewan, my family, the cast. It was just so incredible to have that moment and have everybody there.”
It undoubtedly helped that the timing of the film’s opening could not be more apt. Night Raiders presents a future dystopia where children have been stolen from their parents to be indoctrinated by state-run academies. The film specifically focuses on the plight of one mother, Niska (played by filmmaker Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), who goes to extraordinary lengths to be reunited with her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), joining a band of Indigenous rebels fighting to reclaim their stolen children.
The film may be set in the future, but it is very much a narrative taken from a past which saw the Canadian government take Indigenous children from their homes to attend residential schools, where they could be stripped of their culture.
Goulet, 44, a Cree/Métis from northern Saskatchewan, asserts: “I do have a personal connection to that legacy and I think many Indigenous people do.
“This was a system that was in place for seven generations of Indigenous families,” Goulet says. “We know that when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission released their findings in 2015, they found a child going into a residential school had a greater chance of dying than a Canadian soldier going into World War II.
“So the impact is on all of our families,” Goulet says. “What this has done to parents to children and generations of Indigenous communities is profound.”
Night Raiders deliberately refracts that historic travesty into a dystopian future, part of a trend of Indigenous science fiction that encompasses films such as Jeff Barnaby’s 2019 zombie thriller Blood Quantum. This subgenre addresses issues like residential schools in a disarming action-adventure context in a way to reach audiences who might be turned off by the social-realist films taking on those same issues. Goulet herself comes from that more reality-based background.
“Earlier in my career, when I was making short films and social-realist work, I was invited to do a commission here in Toronto for the Elgin Theatre’s hundredth anniversary,” she recalls. “It was celebrating 100 years of a past … and there was something in me that kept wanting to push into the future.
“At the time, Idle No More was sweeping across the country in the winter of 2012, and there was something about that that held so much hope and promise, seeing the youth stand up in such a powerful way, that I started to think about the future,” Goulet says. “These harmful colonial policies were meant to eradicate Indigenous people. So to not only hope for a future, but to declare we will have a future and that future will be better … it’s a very powerful act.
“So the genre just opened up exciting possibilities that I felt were a fresh entry point into the material,” Goulet says. “I grew up on the genre films. I grew up on Star Wars like everybody else. I loved The Matrix when it came out.
“And I remembered how The Matrix felt like it was coming from a subversive place, though it was packaged like this incredible action movie,” she says. “I remember the power of how it felt at the end when this small group of people were going to take on this massive system.
“To me, that was like this beautiful metaphor for colonization” she says. “As a young Indigenous person watching the movie, that was really exciting to me. And then I also just wanted to give something that I felt like our youth would want to see.”
Night Raiders was shot in Ontario, though it was originally planned for Manitoba shoot. (The local production company Eagle Vision is one of the film’s production partners.) Goulet says she was disappointed when that opportunity to shoot in Manitoba fell through.
“Because I’m from Saskatchewan, I had always dreamed of shooting on the prairies because there is a specific context of anti-Indigenous racism that feels very particular to the prairies,” she says “That was my experience being from both northern Saskatchewan in La Ronge, and then also going to high school in Regina.
“There’s a very tense energy in the city and that kind of energy was informing the tension in the world I created with Night Raiders,” she says. “So it was very heartbreaking when that didn’t work out.”
On the plus side, the film did get a boost when New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi signed on to be an executive producer, turning Night Raiders effectively into a Canada/New Zealand co-production.
“I met Taika back in 2004 at Sundance and we just became friends,” Goulet says. “He was part of a group of peers that were all trying to get our films made.
“So when it came to me finally making my first feature, I went to him and asked if he would be interested in being an executive producer and he was enthusiastic from the get-go,” Goulet says. “He was a total supporter of the film.
“He’s got so much attention and clout and it’s so beautiful that he uses that to support the community, because his name obviously opens doors everywhere,” Goulet says.
Ultimately, she hopes her film about the future will help Canadian audiences understand its past.
“There’s much media focus on reconciliation,” she says. “But the TRC was called Truth and Reconciliation.
“I think there was a move too quickly to jump on reconciliation when we hadn’t quite grappled with the truth,” Goulet says. “Because the truth is horrific. It is hard to let in.”