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TIFF 2021: ‘Night Raiders’ is a Sci-Fi Film with More Intent than Entertainment

Danis Goulet’s Indigenous feature tackles heavy historic truths through a dystopian story.
Night Raiders
By  · Published on September 16th, 2021

This review of Night Raiders is part of our ongoing press coverage of the Toronto International Film Festival. From reviews to interviews to recap lists, follow along for all things TIFF 2021.

Imagine this: it’s 2043 and all of North America is in ruins following a major war. The remaining buildings are destroyed, and many people have no permanent place to live. Food is delivered by flying drones, and children are property of the state. This describes the world of Night Raiders, the debut feature from Cree and Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet.

The film begins with Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and her 11-year-old daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), hunting in the barren woods where they live. Nothing other than their footsteps and the casual instruction of a mother explaining the difference between vampires and werewolves is heard. Suddenly, Waseese is injured by a trap hidden in the brush around their feet.

After failing to find medicine through an old friend (Amanda Plummer) in the nearby city, Niska is faced with a heart-wrenching decision. She can keep Waseese hidden, at a risk to the girl’s health, or she can send her daughter to the academy inside the secluded Emerson State so that Waseese can heal from her wound.

Fast forward ten months and Niska is struggling to survive by selling berries in the city square. She often goes to the fence around the academy where Waseese, called “Elizabeth” by her instructors, is trying to fit into the militarized environment. A reunion seems possible when Niska comes across a group of Indigenous vigilantes who help break children out of the academy. They believe Niska is the answer to a prophecy, that she is the stranger who will guide the children to a safe place. Niska must agree to the task if she wants their help to rescue her own child.

Real-life aspects inspire Night Raiders. Goulet uses the academy as a metaphor for the residential schools that were in the United States and Canada up until the 1990s. These places took Indigenous kids out of their environment in an attempt to assimilate them, creating pain that has been long suppressed. The recent news of various graves on former sites of these schools makes a film like this even more poignant, as Indigenous people collectively mourn for those who were lost to this governmental system.

The community that welcomes Niska in — because they believe she is the one foretold in their prophecy — also feels true to an Indigenous group. The Elders are portrayed by Cree community members, including Kevin Allan Hess, and are there to provide wisdom and to give insight into all situations. The leader of the vigilantes, Ida, is played by Gail Maurice, a Cree woman who speaks most of her lines in her language. These details celebrate a beautiful culture, even in a movie that is visually grim and full of despair.

Night Raiders is a co-production of companies from Canada and New Zealand, bringing Indigenous creatives from North America (Goulet and executive producer Lisa Meeches) together with producers from Aotearoa (Taika Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley). Different Indigenous groups have specific experiences, but all can relate to targeted colonial trauma making this multicultural collaboration unique.

Night Raiders is unique and devastatingly beautiful. While there are typical elements of dystopian fiction evident, the constant glimmer of hope that exists within even the most gruesome of details is a reinvention of narratives in this genre. It is unfair to say that Goulet’s feature debut too closely mirrors big-budget franchises like The Hunger Games, a comparison that has already been made on various social media platforms and other reviews. The first Indigenous-made dystopian feature film is extremely different at the core than previous releases whose main goal is to capitalize on their popular source material.

I’ve heard it stated before that Indigenous people are already living in a post-apocalyptic world. This concept makes sense when put into the perspective of what colonization has taken away from our communities: culture, land, freedom of choice, even language. These are the same aspects of human life that are targeted in made-up dystopian worlds, including Night Raiders, but the intent is not just to entertain, but also to bring healing.

This doesn’t mean Night Raiders is without flaw. A few editing choices don’t work as they disrupt the overall narrative, particularly the constant cross-cutting between Niska and Waseese as the pair are separated. While this allows both the characters’ experiences to be seen by the audience, it takes away from the natural tension that is created by their separation. The movie also spends too much time showing the inside of the academy where Waseese is undergoing a certain military training.

In the sci-fi and horror genres, the scariest monsters are the ones that are never shown to the audience. This academy that brainwashes vulnerable children is the antagonist — or monster — of Night Raiders, and it takes up too much screen time. What happened at the residential schools that this institution represents would be entirely too horrific and risk re-traumatizing Indigenous audiences, therefore the choice to show less would have achieved a much deeper emotional tone for the overall film.

This choice to show Waseese while she is at the academy does give Letexier-Hart more screen time, though, and that is a plus. Her presence is incredibly powerful, a nice complement to Tailfeathers, who is soft and caring, with a subtle toughness. Her recent work in such films as The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open and Blood Quantum are proof of her natural ability in front of the camera, yet Night Raiders shows a different level of emotional vulnerability.

Casting Letexier-Hart and Tailfeathers together was a brilliant move. They create a believable on-screen mother and daughter bond, establishing their closeness in the first scene in the forest. Their instant chemistry inspires tension for the viewer once they are separated, and ultimately motivates the entire plot forward.

Night Raiders is proof that Indigenous storytelling is eternal. Our experiences exist despite the centuries of continued colonial attacks because of our ability to heal through the sharing of narratives. Danis Goulet’s film is evidence of this. Her use of science fiction to frame real events is a testament to Indigenous creativity that works to guarantee that even when this generation is no longer on this Earth, our stories will be.

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Shea Vassar is a ᏣᎳᎩ film nerd & huge fan of coffee, cats, and the OKC Thunder.