TIFF 2021 | Night Raiders (Danis Goulet, Canada/New Zealand)

By Katherine Connell

Published in Cinema Scope #88 (Fall 2021)

The appeal of dystopian narratives hangs on their capacity to hold up a funhouse mirror to the corruption and exploitation of our already extant social realities. Indigenous artists and filmmakers have long underscored the dystopic reality of colonial nation states in their work, and the uptick in dystopic genre cinema over the past decade—from the YA likes of The Hunger Games and Maze Runner to the nihilistic parables of Black Mirror and the Purge franchise—has also seen a corresponding rise in Indigenous engagement with the tropes of horror and science fiction, most notably in the oeuvre of Jeff Barnaby (Rhymes for Young Ghouls, 2013; Blood Quantum, 2019). One of the most intriguing manifestations of this is the interdisciplinary art movement called Indigenous Futurisms (a term coined by the Anishinaabe Indigenous studies scholar Grace L. Dillon), in which the principles of speculative fiction work to challenge the stronghold of primitivist stereotypes and a colonial imaginary in which Indigeneity is actively eliminated from images of the future. 

Cree and Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet first explored this terrain in her 2013 short Wakening, in which a post-apocalyptic cityscape backdrops an anti-authoritarian alliance between two characters from traditional Cree stories (Wesakechak and Weetigo). Goulet’s first feature, Night Raiders, not only returns to the realm of dystopia, but also shows the degree to which its creator’s interest in the genre goes beyond the use of futuristic settings as a mere aesthetic surface. At the crux of dystopian science fiction narratives is what literary critic Darko Suvin called “cognitive estrangement:” a delicate rhetorical manoeuvre that brings the recognizable present into contact with an extraordinary future, creating latitude for social comparison and critique. Goulet, by contrast, questions the very concept of “cognitive estrangement” by challenging the division between speculation and realism, past and future as they relate to Indigenous peoples, beginning her film with an opening voiceover (spoken in Cree against a black screen) that may be more familiar than strange for Indigenous viewers: “We knew that they would come for us, like they always had before. We tried to warn the others that they would come for them too. Because we knew how far they would go.” 

As the unseen narrator intimates, those aware of Canada’s brutal history of cultural genocide will recognize that Goulet derives her worldbuilding not from far-flung futuristic projections but from actual historical events, including the creation of reserves, the pass system, and, particularly, the residential school system—an abomination that came to the forefront of national consciousness this year with the “discovery” of the unmarked graves of thousands of Indigenous children who had been torn from their families, communities, and cultures. Set in the year 2043, Night Raiders imagines a North America that has been decimated and (literally) divided by civil war: on either side of a wall reinforced by militarized police, survivors now live in either prosperity or abject poverty. Drones scan the landscape for children over the age of five, who, when sighted, are declared property of the state, seized from their families, and remanded to institutions that enforce a violent curriculum of cultural assimilation: students are tested for the speed with which they can assemble semiautomatic weapons, and pledge each day to their “glorious republic—one country, one language, one flag.” 

Goulet first began conceptualizing Night Raiders in 2013, finding inspiration in the multinational Indigenous protests at Standing Rock (especially the Lakota Black Snake prophecy describing the Dakota Access Pipeline, which indirectly makes its way into Night Raiders’ own prophetic narrative strands) and presciently anticipating the white-supremacist uprisings unleashed by the election of Donald Trump—which, in Night Raiders, is identified as the cause of the fictional civil war. This nod to currency aside, Goulet avoids the info-dump trap that is all too common in sci-fi cinema thanks to the long creative gestation of her project, slowly revealing the brutal mechanics of her future society as she follows Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a young Cree woman who has thus far managed to keep her 11-year-old daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), free of the state’s clutches by living off the land far away from the city. 

When Waseese steps into a bear trap and the wound gets infected, Niska is faced with a series of impossible decisions that culminate in her giving up her daughter to one of the state paramilitary institutions, the Davin Academy (a reference to Nicholas Flood Davin, one of the 19th-century architects of the Canadian residential schools). Goulet sketches the lineaments of her world through Niska’s interactions with various other characters: an old friend from the city (Amanda Plummer) whose estranged son is a star graduate of Davin; a boyfriend of convenience (Shaun Sipos) whose attempts to get them bootleg citizenship are thwarted by a government-orchestrated plague; and, most importantly, a Cree-led resistance movement that liberates children from the schools during dangerous night raids, and whose elders believe Niska to be the prophesized guardian who can lead the children north to a (perhaps mythic) place of safety. 

Niska’s skepticism about participating in (much less leading) an act of resistance against an oppressive regime that commodifies or abuses the young and vulnerable would seem to align Goulet’s protagonist with the many reluctant saviours of dystopian cinema, from the Mad Maxes of The Road Warrior (1981), Beyond Thunderdome (1985), and Fury Road (2015) to Clive Owen in Children of Men (2006) and Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in Logan (2017). In addition to the significant fact that Niska is neither male—which puts her in the company of more nominally “progressive” women dystopian heroes like Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss in The Hunger Games (2012) or Elisabeth Moss’ June in The Handmaid’s Tale—nor, of course, white, Goulet also distinguishes her by expanding the genre’s often limited imagining of activism and revolution, not least in the film’s ardent assertion that true resistance is a collective rather than an individual project. (That ethos is echoed in the film’s own status as a collaboration between Indigenous production companies in Canada and Aotearoa/New Zealand—an extradiegetic relationship that is acknowledged in the film’s narrative world by the presence of Alex Tarrant’s Leo, a Māori member of the Cree resistance.) Night Raiders further sets itself apart by refuting the possibility of the utopic (if often strategically vague) restoration of a “normal” society that undergirds so much dystopian cinema. This is most explicit in the conclusion of the Hunger Games series, where victory is signalled by the restitution of the white, heterosexual nuclear family—which, when viewed through the lens of peoples whose cultures, traditions, and very lives have been irrevocably harmed by the forces aligned with that ideology, becomes not merely a reaffirmation of the status quo but an image of horror. 

By contrast, Night Raiders insists that any way forward in a world barrelling toward cataclysmic political and ecological destruction must involve the knowledge, self-determination, and, crucially, the leadership of Indigenous peoples. This is not to say that Goulet’s film didactically offers a blueprint for action; instead, it opts to close on an image of precarious survival. Throughout the film, Goulet establishes a formal pattern in which the camera moves from the stillness of the sky—a vantage point that echoes the vertical surveillance of the drones while also suggesting the possibility of a world beyond totalitarian rule—to the hurried, fraught movements of people on the ground. In the film’s final moments, that movement is reversed: we now move from ground to sky, where drones still hover, though now commandeered by Waseese. It’s a fitting example of creative bricolage in desperate times: at once a grim acceptance of the surveillance technologies that control so much of contemporary life, and a tentative effort at imagining a coexistence with these technologies free from the yoke of exploitation and control. 

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