The Future Past: Danis Goulet’s Dystopia

Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) and Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) in Night Raiders. 
Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) and Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) in Night Raiders

Night Raiders writer-director Danis Goulet on her cross-hemispheric Indigenous collaboration, dystopian futures and the grandmothers of Native cinema.

Cree is my dad’s first language. Every opportunity to put it on screen is incredible. I think those scenes where it’s in the language have a totally different energy and quality to them, and they’re among my favorite sequences in the film.” —⁠Danis Goulet

“Groundbreaking”, like “iconic” and “overrated”, is one of those words that gets thrown around freely in film writing, losing meaning after a time. But Night Raiders truly breaks the ground that lies outside white dystopian screen stories.

It is a Native woman’s sci-fi creation, building a futuristic world that sits on dark Canadian history; addressing the ongoing trauma of that country’s residential schools while keeping entertaining dystopian action tropes intact. 

One of Letterboxd’s top picks out of Berlinale back in March, Night Raiders is the—yes—groundbreaking feature debut of Cree/Métis writer-director Danis Goulet, who won the Best Emerging Director award at TIFF this year. The film is important for being both a largely Indigenous production (director, writer, producers, cast) and the first ever Canada-New Zealand Indigenous co-production, with Jojo Rabbit producers Taika Waititi and Chelsea Winstanley attached. 

Colonization still rules in North America, in the dystopian 2043 of Night Raiders. Niska, a Cree woman, has had her daughter Waseese taken by the state to train at a children’s academy run by the occupying military. Niska finds hope in an underground band of vigilantes, who cling hard to their Indigenous languages and cultural practices.

Marginalized artists have long used imagined futures to call attention to the traumatic past (and present), and Goulet’s take has landed well with Letterboxd members who have caught Night Raiders at festivals this year. “Gives us plain sight into what has been obfuscated for so long” (BCollinSmith); “Literally changed my perspective on dystopia” (Charles); “I want a trilogy. I want this story to be told over and over again” (JacqValencia).

Vigilantes take on the military in a scene from Night Raiders. 
Vigilantes take on the military in a scene from Night Raiders

Night Raiders breaks further ground by being, so far, the highest-budgeted Canadian film helmed by, and the widest Canadian theatrial opening for, an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker. The production was built on tightly-knitted, cross-hemispheric Indigenous connections in a world where the traditional film industry is constantly trying to stitch co-productions together. 

Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, alongside a cast including her The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open co-star Violet Nelson, and NCIS: Hawaii star Alex Tarrant, Night Raiders is on digital and demand now, and has just screened at the Hawai’i and New Zealand International Film Festivals. Goulet was at the Hawai’i screening, and Letterboxd’s Indigenous editor Leo Koziol at the New Zealand event. They connected afterwards through the power of the digital metaverse for a conversation about prophecy, language, and that most important of questions: “What Would Alanis Do?”.

I got to see your film this week on the giant screen here at the New Zealand International Film Festival. You had a great reception with Kath Akuhata-Brown and Georgina Conder there. Your screenings have all been selling out. We’re all so excited to see it on the big screen.
Danis Goulet: I’m so excited, and I was so sad to miss it. Kath had a really important role in the film. She came up to support during production. She was really particularly a support for the [Māori] character Leo, played by Alex Tarrant (​​Ngāti Pāoa/​Niue/​Samoa]. She helped him with the performance of all of the cultural aspects in the film. I really couldn’t have directed those sequences without her. I just feel so grateful that she was my partner in that aspect of the film.

What was the inspiration for Night Raiders?
I really wanted to talk about the impact of colonial policies like the residential school system on Indigenous families. I’d just come off of making the short film Wakening, which was my first foray into sci-fi. There was something about working in the space that was just so free, and it opened up a lot of exciting creative possibilities for me.

When I went to make this film, I just thought, ‘I’m going to stay in this dystopian space.’ There’s so much that it offers when you want to create a story like this. There’s so much that it offers as allegory. I was just really excited about that.

Night Raiders writer and director Danis Goulet. 
Night Raiders writer and director Danis Goulet. 

You’ve created a whole dystopian alternative world. Can you talk a little about how that came about?
Even though it’s set in an imaginary future in the year 2043, everything in the film is based on real historical policies that were inflicted upon Indigenous people in Canada. The conditions of the restriction of freedom of movement was something that [was created] when Canada and the US created the reserve system. [That was] also when it was decided who had status as an Indigenous person under the eyes of the Canadian government. There was a differentiation between who had citizenship and not, which is also an element in the world.

Then the virus element [in the film] was based on smallpox, which eradicated and decimated many Indigenous communities because of the lack of immunity. That happened in the 1700s, but it had a huge impact. I incorporated this virus element, which of course was pre-Covid, and now it’s kind of chilling to watch. I just created all of these conditions that actually had already happened.

Then when I imagined going into the future, I created a timeline that mapped out every election going 30 years into the future. What happened in those elections, what the reaction was. What led to a North America-wide civil war, and then what happened when there was a peace treaty signed for the war, and what the conditions were. Then I placed the characters within that world timeline and what had happened to them personally during those world conditions.

I was also really fascinated with elements of prophecy and taking from the stories of our ancestors. Tell me more about that.
Yes, I think that the stories in our communities and especially the stories that would be characterized as prophecy [are] just simply a part of our cultures. We have so many of those stories. The Anishinaabe talk about the Seven Generation prophecy. When I went to Standing Rock for research, they talked about the Black Snake prophecy, which was the snake that jutted across the landscape. The modern-day interpretation of it was that the snake was the [Dakota access] pipeline.

In our communities, we have certain elements of prophecy that are just a part of our cultures. I wanted to reflect that, but in a way that felt grounded and real, and that it’s just a part of life. To me, the prophecy is just very real to everybody in the story, and it’s not thought of as this big mythological thing, it’s just presented as the way things are.

The prophecy itself was something that I constructed for the story, but I loved it when Elder Pauline Shirt talks about the prophecy at the beginning of the film. I feel like it just sets and contextualizes things in such a beautiful way, and it makes the characters feel as though they’re all participants in a larger journey that goes beyond just them as individuals.

Violet Nelson as Somonis in Night Raiders. 
Violet Nelson as Somonis in Night Raiders

You’ve got a great ensemble cast. How did they come together?
We started casting quite a while before going into production. I think we were obviously aware that finding Waseese might take some time. She’s an eleven-year-old character, and has to carry a lot of the movie on her shoulders.

We worked with a US casting director, Rene Haynes, who searched North America-wide. We looked at over 300 girls for the role. When it came closer to production, we still hadn’t exactly found her. Then we went to Winnipeg, Manitoba, and we found this girl who came in for the role of Victoria, which was a smaller role, and it was Brooklyn Letexier-Hart. As soon as I saw her, I said, “Bring her back in for Waseese.” I just knew she was the one.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers I knew as a director more so than as an actor, but when she came in for her callback, I was crying by the end of the audition because of the power and the vulnerability that she brought to that role. Then Elder Pauline Shirt is a respected elder in the Toronto Indigenous community, a Cree elder originally from the prairies, where I’m from.

I got to also work with amazing people like Gail Maurice, who is an incredibly talented actor who actually voiced the character of the Wendingo, the cannibalistic being in Wakening.

No way.
She was actually that monster, and she also plays the role of Ida. Then we found Alex Tarrant, who plays Leo, through Ainsley Gardiner and her casting team down in New Zealand, because of course we don’t know anything about casting down in that region of the world, so we really relied on Ainsley and her team to help us there to find him.

Gail Maurice (center) as Ida and Violet Nelson as Somonis.  
Gail Maurice (center) as Ida and Violet Nelson as Somonis.  

Can you tell me about the use of Native languages in your film?
The language spoken in the film is Cree, and that is one of the largest Indigenous languages in Canada. There’s many different dialects, and it stretches from Alberta in the Midwest all the way to Hudson’s Bay in Northern Ontario. It’s a huge, massive language group.

Cree is my dad’s first language. He speaks what’s known as the n-dialect. I incorporate Cree into many of my projects, because it’s my language, but it’s one that I don’t speak fluently. I’m a language learner, but to me the language is so rich and beautiful, and there are universes and worldviews contained in it that just open us all up to the discovery of beauty and poetry.

I just love the opportunity to put the language on screen. It’s really near and dear to my heart, because it’s something that I’m just passionate about learning myself. Every opportunity to put it on screen is incredible. I think those scenes where it’s in the language have a totally different energy and quality to them, and they’re among my favorite sequences in the film.

It’s certainly wonderful to watch a film that’s about a dystopian future, but where at least the Native people have brought their languages back!
Totally. Yes.

That was very inspiring. I’m going to turn now to your interests in film and filmmaking. What is the film that made you want to get into filmmaking?
Oh, my goodness. Is there a film that made me want to get into filmmaking? I remember seeing The Matrix and being, like, ‘This is badass action that is coming from a very subversive place.’ There was just something about the voice in The Matrix where I was like, ‘These people are sticking it to the man, and they’re doing it in the disguise of this action movie.’ I remember being really excited when I saw that.

Then I also remember as a teenager watching Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which is a pinnacle activist documentary up here in Canada about the Oka crisis, which was a showdown between the Mohawk people and the Canadian government that happened in 1990. That film had a really profound impact on me. I was just like, ‘It’s queen Alanis. She’s amazing.’

You’ve partly answered my other question: is there an Indigenous film that’s your favorite of all time?
Yes, I have a couple that I could add to that list. I also just want to acknowledge the late Merata Mita. I think Merata and Alanis are really regarded as the grandmothers of Indigenous cinema. They came up at the same time, and they faced incredible odds to make their films.

Every time I’m facing a challenging moment or a moment where I just want to walk away and quit, literally it comes into my head, ‘What would Alanis do? What would Merata do?’ I’m so happy and thrilled that Hepi Mita made the film that he did to tell his mother’s story, because it is so important for us to understand the roots of Indigenous cinema. That these are roots that have inspired all of us in the global Indigenous film community.

Yes, it’s amazing. I attended this year’s imagineNATIVE film festival virtually, and the festival’s artistic director Niki Little had to introduce herself online. She described her outfit, and then she adds, “My earrings are, ‘What Would Alanis Do?’”
Yes, I know. Those are amazing earrings. ImagineNATIVE gave them to me as a gift this year when I opened the festival, and it was so perfect. It was like a full circle. I think there’s been really amazing filmmakers up here in Canada. Zacharias Kunuk. I love his films.

I love [Australian director] Warwick Thornton’s films. I was so lucky to meet Briar Grace-Smith years ago when she was a script mentor at an imagineNATIVE lab. I just think there’s so many talented artists. There’s Taika, of course, who’s so well known, and we’ve all watched and loved his films for years.

Alex Tarrant as Leo. 
Alex Tarrant as Leo. 

Could you speak about how the Canada-New Zealand co-production came about? Because I guess in some ways it is mirroring the history that came about when Merata met Alanis.
Yes, I love that story of them meeting at that festival in the ’80s, because I feel like that is the birthplace of something, and that they were among the first to have this kind of global support network of like-minded [people] and have similar missions. To see that sort of support network blossom into actual collaboration and co-production I think is a dream that many people have been holding for many years.

I know that, back in the mid-2000s, the National Screen Institute here in Canada sent a delegation of folks down to New Zealand and Australia to start sowing the seeds of that collaboration. When I started writing Night Raiders, I went to Briar [Grace-Smith] and I just said, “Do you think it makes sense to have the character Leo in this story?” It made sense to me, because our global Indigenous solidarity was already so present both in activist movements, but also in the screen community itself. That’s how we had met all of these people. I had met Ainsley at imagineNATIVE years ago. These connections were already so organic.

I think others out there in the industry go, “How do you foster connections to build co-production?” In our Indigenous communities, so many of those connections are already there. As long as it made sense to have that character in the story, I think it made it really ripe for co-production.

But then all of that came together, really, because of the producers, Paul Barkin and Tara Woodbury on the Canadian side, and then Ainsley Gardiner and Georgina Conder on the New Zealand side. It was really their work with the funders, the New Zealand Film Commission and Telefilm, in order to make it all line up and actually come together, which was amazing.

Brooklyn Letexier-Hart and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers seek safety in Night Raiders’ dystopian future. 
Brooklyn Letexier-Hart and Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers seek safety in Night Raiders’ dystopian future. 

Another cross-cultural Indigenous aspect is that Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is both Indigenous Canadian and Sámi.
Yes. Totally. I remember going up to Finland and the Arctic Circle to the Sámi Film Festival up there. These connections are incredible. Then there’s an Arctic Film Fund, which funds circumpolar collaboration, which is super cool.

Well, the in-person audience I saw your film with loved it. You left us wanting more! What’s next for you? Is there going to be a Night Raiders 2?
That’s a great question. I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m getting asked this question a lot. I’m guessing it means maybe I should give it a bit more thought. I’m developing a project up in my home community in northern Saskatchewan, so I’m going to focus on that for a bit.

But I’ve lived with these characters in Night Raiders for so long. I love them so much. Maybe I ought to really give that serious consideration!

Night Raiders’ is out now on digital and on demand. You can watch Danis Goulet’s first short ‘Wakening’ for free on Vimeo.

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