Still from the movie Night Raiders

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska in Night Raiders. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Interview: Danis Goulet about dystopian sci-fi, colonialism, and her Indigenous vision for Night Raiders

After a series of shorts, including the dystopian Wakening that screened at Sundance and TIFF, director Danis Goulet has delved further into what has been dubbed “Indigenous Sci‑Fi” with her feature debut Night Raiders (Cree: ᑎᐱᐢᑳᐃ ᓇᑐᐸᓃᒐᑫᐘᐠ). The film follows the Cree woman Niska (Elle‑Máijá Tailfeathers) as she joins a group of underground resistance fighters to free her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier‑Hart) from the abuse and indoctrination of the state children’s academy. It’s the year 2043, and a fractured North America grapples with the aftermath of a civil war caused by conflicting positions on the Canada/US unification that was pushed through by those in power.

Goulet researched the history of fascism meticulously when writing the screenplay for Night Raiders – a project that started already in 2013 – to have the film echo known and lesser‑known atrocities of the past. Not least, the Canadian residential school system, an orchestrated attempt at state‑sanctioned eradication of Indigenous culture, is weaved into this story of a mother’s struggle and the meaning of community.

I linked up with Goulet to talk about what influenced Night Raiders, how it relates to dystopian science fiction, and the importance of Indigenous stories.

Markus Amalthea Magnuson: Night Raiders puts Indigenous culture front and centre, which is something we don’t see very often in sci-fi. That makes me happy. What is your relation to science fiction?

Danis Goulet: I come from a small town in northern Saskatchewan, an Indigenous community in the midwest of Canada. It had a theatre in it, right on the lake. As a youngster, I certainly didn’t have access to arthouse movies, but I watched all of the big events. My mom was a sci‑fi nerd; she was really into Star Trek, which she’d watch on TV all the time. Like everyone else, I grew up on Star Wars and E.T. and all of these kinds of bigger sci‑fi movies that I think defined a certain generation.

When I was older, I saw The Matrix for the first time in the theatre, and it blew me away that there was this slick, incredible action movie, but that seemed like it had something very subversive to say. I was so excited by that when I saw it. I remember having shivers by the end of the movie because I felt like this was a subversive voice. It was very much talking about the man and had a view to all of that. Also, it felt like it was about these people resisting this impossible kind of super‑structure, which to me was a perfect metaphor for colonisation. I think, as an Indigenous person, I saw that movie and thought, “Oh my god, colonisation is the matrix, and we are the people fighting against it, even though it’s everywhere and dominates our lives.” So there is something about the tropes in sci‑fi that lend themselves to Indigenous experience, in a way.

Markus: That’s fantastic. It seems to me that the current generation of sci‑fi directors all mention The Matrix. It’s so open to interpretation, as was intended, but has a common theme of oppression that allows everyone to read their own story into it. It never went out of style or substance, still after 20 years, and it’s interesting to see it has that position.

Danis: I’d also say Children of Men was a touchstone for me, obviously. It’s in the near future and has a reluctant hero, many of the things that exist in Night Raiders as well.

Markus: What were your thoughts specifically on dystopian science fiction when you started working on Night Raiders? A lot of science fiction is dystopian, and I’m always trying to figure out why.

Danis: Right before Night Raiders, I made a short (Wakening) set in a dystopian future, and I had thought that maybe I’d try to do utopian because it’s an interesting challenge. But for some reason, at least in an Indigenous context, there is a lot of talk about the fact that colonisation has already happened to Indigenous people. In science fiction, there are all these anxieties about the aliens that are going to come and take you away and take your body and your people and everything that means something to you. Colonisation did that to Indigenous people. So for us, it’s a reality, not imaginary. There are a lot of academics in the Indigenous space that talk about the fact that the apocalypse has already happened in Indigenous communities. I can’t speak to why anyone else would want to work in that space. But certainly, for me as an Indigenous filmmaker, it just felt so easy to talk about the oppression that Indigenous people in any colonised country have experienced. That was the appeal for me.

Also, making something utopian became really difficult once Trump was elected because it felt like, how can we not talk about our existence as dystopian right now? When I went to make Night Raiders, which was before Trump – I started writing it around 2013 – I was thinking about the changing demographics in North America and thought there would be a white backlash. When the power balance is upset, it doesn’t give up easily. So that was a part of imagining how a far‑right white‑supremacist uprising would happen in North America, which would lead to a civil war. That’s what I imagined.

Markus: How specific would you say Night Raiders is to Canada and North America? Some things seem to reach very specifically into Canadian history, such as the residential school system. Do you see a clear pathway from that history into the future you depict in your movie and how we would end up there?

Danis: I was looking at broader tides in the world at large. I did a lot of research into World War II, the uprising of Hitler, far‑right movements‚ the Tea Party, and so on. But I wanted to talk specifically about the Indigenous experience and, of course, when I did that, everything in this imaginary future is based on real historical policies. There’s actually no fiction in the film, except that it’s in a future that doesn’t exist yet. The restriction of the freedom of movement, the determination of who has status and who doesn’t, who’s seen as a citizen in the eyes of the government. All of that has already happened to Indigenous people.

Then, of course, the residential school system, which up here in Canada, was in place for seven generations of Indigenous families. Its impact was profound. In 2015 we had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission that found that an Indigenous child going into a residential school had a greater chance of dying than a Canadian soldier going into World War II.

I think I had thought of the story as a North America‑wide phenomenon that included the US and that the US had proposed unification with Canada, and that’s part of what led to the civil war. So at a certain point, Canada and the US united, which caused a whole bunch of unrest between the people who wanted it and the people who didn’t. But there was a specifically Canadian aspect to the film where I would say how they sell the schools as a helpful thing that will help your child and give them a better future and that sort of “the state is benevolent” and even politeness about their form of oppression. To me, that was very Canadian and super‑intentional. We’re not going to be as overt as Donald Trump might be about his racism and white supremacy. We’re going to hide it under the rug and go, “it’s good for the children, bring them our way and we’ll look after them and make sure they have a better future”.

Markus: Canada has some rather shameful history that I think people are prompted to inquire into after watching your movie. Would you say there are any common misconceptions about Canada and Indigenous people, about First Nations, or anything else you’d like to have come across in the movie that people may miss?

Danis: As Indigenous people, we are up against a hundred years of cinema history that has served to misrepresent us on screen. Hollywood was the worst perpetrator of that. All of those Hollywood movies where Indigenous people were on screen to be fought or killed – really to die on screen was their main purpose – or portrayed as screeching savages with no humanity. Simply a film that portrays the humanity in Indigenous people and what they have been through is countering that entire cinema history that’s done the opposite and has very much served a colonial agenda. I wanted the focus of what you see when Niska comes into the community to be, first and foremost, that there’s a love between everybody. That love is, to me, the heart of the film. That love is such a human thing, and also the perseverance and the resistance. I just hope people better understand all of that.

Just one feature film into a long career to come, Goulet has expressed an intense interest in the current wave of Indigenous genre film. She has said that science fiction offers freedom of expression to the largest possible extent because no one can hold you to reality as a way of putting ideas down as too unbelievable. Although some find the heavy dose of dystopia that a film like Night Raiders serves too much of a mouthful, it still proves that science fiction as a genre excels at exploring potential societies. And you never know, maybe Goulet gives that utopian sci‑fi another shot someday.

Night Raiders premieres in theatres, on digital, and VOD in the US on November 12, 2021.

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