NIGHT RAIDERS (TIFF2021) – Review by Leslie Combemale
The first words uttered in voiceover in Canadian Cree and Metis writer/director Danis Goulet’s feature debut, Night Raiders, are “We knew they would come for us like they always have before.” Though rooted in dystopian storytelling that recalls some darker recent YA literature, the film is actually right out of the nightmares and collective memories of indigenous people around the world, particularly in the US, Australia, and Canada. Clearly, for Goulet, making a film is inherently a political act.
After a war in North America, a new military regime restructures society, with citizens living in relative splendor, and any poor or indigenous people left away from the city, in squalor, controlled by what they call “The Jingoes” with an iron fist, killed given the slightest provocation. All children are taken and put into State Academies, brainwashed, and trained as military pawns of the state. In their pledge of allegiance, it specifically says “one language”, which speaks to the real-world experience of forced assimilation by colonizers and the erasure of many of languages spoken by tribes around the world.
Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, actor and director of The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open) has been hiding herself and her 11-year-old daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) in the brush for over 6 years in order to keep her from being taken from her. The first part of Night Raiders shows them in their part of the world, where food is scarce and medicine even more-so if you aren’t part of the chosen citizenry. Waseese steps into a trap and badly injures her ankle, so mother and daughter go into a village to get help from old friend Roberta (Amanda Plummer), who hasn’t seen her son since he was taken to school years before. Not being able to access proper medicine and afraid her daughter will die, Niska gives Waseese up to the Jingoes, who take her away to the school.
Then the two characters’ stories run parallel. Niska works to survive and get her daughter back while staying in an indigenous encampment where the elder speaks of a prophesy in which someone comes from the north to release them all from their struggle. Waseese, renamed Elizebeth by the Jingoes, struggles with living through the daily brainwashing, indoctrination, and military training. The stories converge in a very suspenseful and satisfying way, without Goulet beating us all over the head with messaging, but incorporating futuristic technology in an inventive and mythical way.
A Canadian-New Zealand co-production, Night Raiders is also notable for the writer/director choosing to use a cast of indigenous actors from cultures all over the world. To Goulet it made perfect sense to tell the story that included more communities that had been impacted by dangerous colonial policies. The global indigenous film community is very tight knit. In fact, New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi is an executive producer on the film.
Intergenerational trauma and the experience of oppression lay the foundation for world building and storytelling in this strange fantasy that vacillates between bleak and hopeful right to the end. Certainly some folks who know Canadian history will see references to the forced removal and placement of indiginous children into residential schools, where they had bigger chance of dying than did soldiers in WW2. Other events like the Oka Crisis are also inspiration, but Goulet is telling, above all, a story of survival beyond the atrocities inflicted by colonial oppressors. It’s one that resonates particularly powerfully, given the recent discovery of over a thousand unmarked graves of indigenous children on Canadian residential school grounds.
The idea that this film envisions a future in which indigenous people fight for their right to exist and foster a flourishing culture is predicated on the fact that they exist in the present. That could have easily not been the case. Throughout history, colonists have repeatedly tried to eradicate indigenous cultures. Goulet’s film defiantly presents these cultures as alive, resistant, and imagining a positive future for themselves. That in itself makes Night Raiders a hopeful film.
4 out of 5 stars.