Danis Goulet’s science-fiction film Night Raiders aims to reckon with Canada’s past and succeeds in effectively relaying the pain that still resonates and the resistance that still burns. Led by the incomparable Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, the film aims to remind audiences that the horrors of residential schools and the false promises that came with Indigenous children being snatched away from their parents are part of the fabric of society today. It is not simply a matter of knowing our history, because, without a true understanding of how these practices are still with us, we are bound to fall into this trap again.
Night Raiders follows a Cree woman, Niska (Tailfeathers) and her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) as they navigate a dystopian North America left in ruins after a devastating war. In a fractured society, Niska and Waseese attempt to live under the radar as the people remain under constant surveillance from the military government. One of the core missions of the militant occupiers is “rebuilding” society by removing children from the care of their parents and sending them to academies that aim to re-educate them into civil servants. Of course, there are promises of opportunities, shelter, security and good lives attached to this horrid practice. Niska is not completely aware of the true nature of these academies but she is keen on keeping her daughter away until it becomes impossible. Left with few options for her ill daughter, Niska gives her up. Time passes and a desperate Niska joins a resistance movement to save her daughter.
Although set in 2044, the film is an honest depiction and reflection of the history of Canada’s residential school system and the colonization of this land by Europeans. The images depicted are intense and can be triggering for those intimately affected by this. However, while it is all so dreadfully relevant today, the film has a positive outlook.
One of the core themes is the bond between mothers and daughters. Tailfeathers and Letexier-Hart work beautifully together with a connection that is felt through wordless gestures and a look in their eyes. Their sensitive and searing portrayals are the beating heart of this film. Tailfeathers should be given all the praise for carrying this film as its lead with immense strength and grace. Niska is certainly a “strong female character” but Tailfeathers imbues her with a vulnerability that is not in any way portrayed as a weakness. It is in her vulnerability that we see the humanity that this society is (and was) so eager to strip away to justify unspeakable horrors. Truly a spectacular turn and one that proves that Tailfeathers is a must-watch talent on-screen. She is also a brilliant director and writer, as shown in the stunning The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, which stars Violet Nelson, who also turns in a stellar performance in Night Raiders.
The film is well-constructed and fully realized. With very few resources in comparison to the average dystopian blockbuster, Goulet effectively utilizes her exceptional cast, expert costume and production design, and immersive narrative to craft a film that feels large in scale and scope.
Perhaps the most effective aspect of Goulet’s directing is her ability to create an atmosphere that is filled with dread and suspense as well as love and hope. The juxtaposition is further emphasized with Niska’s stay in the city versus her stay in the Indigenous encampment, the base for the resistance movement. There Goulet’s directing thrives, as Niska is given, for what could be the first time in a long time, a home. Community is vital to the act of resilience and Goulet beautifully captures this in these scenes. With the addition of Maōri actor Alex Tarrant, Goulet brings a global outlook to the act of resistance and community. Assimilation, colonization, and residential schooling were not isolated practices within North America, and with Tarrant’s character Leo acting as the stand-in for the global Indigenous community, Goulet expands her narrative further. A larger budget would have certainly given the film an edge with some extended action sequences, but the impact of a well-written story is priceless.
Night Raiders is an impactful debut that offers us a searing reminder that the loss and pain that came with our not-so-distant past is still deeply felt.
Night Raiders had its North American premiere at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. It opens in theatres on October 8.
by Ferdosa Abdi