While writing her new Indigenous sci-fi thriller Night Raiders, Danis Goulet says she approached one broadcaster for funding and walked away with a “tiny example” of the barriers facing Indigenous filmmakers.
It was June 2015, the same month the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada released its final report, when the broadcaster sent feedback notes to Goulet. They suggested her futuristic story of a Cree woman trying to get her daughter out of a forced-education camp was “exciting” and “propulsive” with great characters.
But they added: “It doesn’t really work as an allegory for residential schools, because priests are no longer beating children and as a country, we’ve moved on from this,’” Goulet recalled in a video interview.
She was “floored” by what they were saying in response to her script.
“It really showed the prevailing attitude that was out there and that these notes were being used by gatekeepers as reasons to either move forward or not with the project.”
The experience further emphasized why the La Ronge, Sask.-raised Cree/Metis writer-director wanted to make Night Raiders, opening in 80 locations Friday in theatres across Canada.
Elevation Pictures says Night Raiders will have the widest theatrical opening ever for an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker — a record previously held by Zacharias Kunuk’s Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, which played 36 locations. Goulet and the Canada Media Fund’s Made/Nous program also plan to screen the film in northern Indigenous communities.
Elle-Maija Tailfeathers stars as Niska, who teams up with Cree vigilantes to rescue her daughter and other children from a state-run military academy.
Brooklyn Letexier-Hart plays her daughter in the post-war dystopian tale, which is set in North America in 2043 and reflects both the past and present — from residential school horrors, to walls dividing nations and the spread of a deadly virus.
Goulet started writing the story in 2013 after her post-apocalyptic short film Wakening inspired her to use the sci-fi genre in a feature that further explored the impact of colonial policies on Indigenous people.
Political movements of the time also inspired Goulet’s writing, among them the Idle No More movement to protect land and water, and the oil pipeline protests near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation between North and South Dakota.
She set the story in 2043, imagining what might transpire after several more elections in North America.
“I got to a civil war around the early 2030s, based on what I thought would be a far-right white supremacist backlash in North America,” she said.
“Then I imagined when that would happen, what would transpire, how it would lead to war, and then what would happen in the post-war period.”
As she was developing the story, some of the unsettling ideas she imagined on the page began to play out in reality, in particular the white supremacist backlash.
“I think it’s reminded us about how important it is to be vigilant when it comes to the types of futures that we want to create for all of us,” she said.
Goulet shot the Canada/New Zealand co-production in 2019 in Ontario, with her friend and acclaimed Mäori Jojo Rabbit filmmaker Taika Waititi among the executive producers.
The film had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival in March and made its Canadian debut to rave reviews at last month’s Toronto International Film Festival.
The cast also includes Alex Tarrant, Shaun Sipos, Amanda Plummer and Goulet’s father, Keith Goulet, a retired politician who was Saskatchewan’s first Indigenous cabinet minister.
Goulet said her parents have long fought for change through their perseverance and their determination.
“My dad was a politician and he chose to push in all of the ways he could for change in that arena. My mom is non-Indigenous, but she chose to serve at First Nations University for 35 years in the education department,” she said.
“Both of them were very active members of our community.”
Goulet said her Métis dad grew up speaking Cree as a first language and hunting and trapping in a traditional lifestyle in Cumberland House, Sask. Watching him go into political spaces and “face racism head-on, with no hesitation” has been incredibly inspiring for Goulet, she said.
“I feel like it’s created a fortitude, both with me and my sister in our family that’s enabled us to do what we do,” she said.
“I involve him in the development of my films. I sit down at the table with him and talk to him about conceptual Cree thought, because it’s so important for me as a non-Cree speaker.”
Like the character Niska, Goulet said she speaks some Cree but not much, but she’s recently started going to a Cree language camp to learn the language.
Indigenous languages are “poetic and beautiful, and it’s where we find our heritage,” she said, noting attempts to erase it have resulted in huge personal losses in families including hers.
“The impact of colonization touches all aspects of Indigenous life,” Goulet said. “Why don’t I speak Cree, as the daughter of my dad? That is colonization doing what it was meant to do, which is to erase us on our own land.”