Set in a dystopian 2043, Night Raiders follows a Cree woman as she attempts to rescue her daughter. But there may be more at stake here than the life of just one child.
Danis Goulet (director and writer), Daniel Grant (cinematographer), Jorge Weisz (editor)
Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Shaun Sipos, Amanda Plummer, Gail Maurice, Violet Nelson, Suzanne Cyr (cast)
September 11, 2021 (TIFF)
From the TIFF 2021 line-up, I was really looking forward to Night Raiders, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. The best dystopian stories, in my opinion, are the ones that challenge the status quo to inform our future. That’s what this film does so well yet so subtly.
In the film, a civil war causes the formation of a united North America. But while Canada and the USA become one country, a wall separates the disenfranchised, housed in cities across Canada. Another fallout of the war sees all children above the age of five automatically becoming properties of the government.
Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) has successfully hidden away from the cities with her daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) for years. But when Waseese is badly injured, Niska has no choice but to seek out help. In the process, she loses Waseese to the State. Initially believing that Waseese will have a better life, Niska learns that her daughter’s fate could be something much worse. She teams up with her fellow Cree survivors to save Waseese, and hopefully, change her world.
Though set in the future and in a sci-fi setting, this story is painfully relatable for so many Indigenous communities across North America. In her introduction for the film, writer/director Danis Goulet spoke of using the sci-fi genre to examine one of the greatest atrocities committed in Canada — the residential school system. Generations of Indigenous families were torn apart, and the affects of the system are still being felt today. In light of the recent mass graves discovered across Canada, films like Night Raiders are more necessary than ever.
That bleak backdrop doesn’t change the fact that Night Raiders is an engrossing film and uses atmosphere brilliantly to draw the viewer in. The world of the film doesn’t look that different from ours. If not for the design of the drones and the vast number of decrepit buildings, one could easily be looking out their own window. It makes the story realistic but it also drives home how close in history we are to the events happening onscreen. Children being taken away from their families and indoctrinated into a new way of life that is explicitly designed to strip them off their identity was a huge part of what the residential schools were made for. In the film, there’s a slogan that the children in the academy need to repeat that is chilling, mainly because the themes are ones we’ve heard spouted from the mouths of right-wingers over the last four years.
Politically, Night Raiders has a lot to say without being jargonistic. The dialogue feels natural, as does the world-building. For a sci-fi film to rely so little on exposition was a surprise, and a refreshing change. We learn about the world through what we see, and the film gives viewers the room to make connections themselves. In that sense, this film could do with multiple viewings. There are clues strewn throughout that you might miss on the first watch.
The style of the film is deceptively simple. There’s an analog feel to it that makes the viewing experience more intimate. It’s not a technique that one associates with sci-fi, but it fits the setting and the story. Night Raiders is essentially a film about family, not just about a mother and her daughter, but also the family that one builds from a community. The handheld cameras and close-ups of the characters make the audience feel like they’re part of that family too. It’s a great method for keeping viewers engaged in the world.
Tailfeathers puts in a powerful performance as the heart of the film. Though Night Raiders has an ensemble cast, it is Niska who drives the plot. There’s something of a chosen one narrative here that Night Raiders actively subverts and much of that relies on Tailfeathers’ performance. While a lot of genre films give us characters desperate to change their circumstances or cause a revolution, Niska just wants her daughter so they can live in peace. She’s not a fighter; she’s an everyday human being in a difficult position. The reluctant hero is fast becoming my favourite type of protagonist and characters like Niska are the reason why.
Young Letexier-Hart doesn’t have as much to do but she certainly steals her scenes, particularly in the latter half of the film when Waseese is in the academy. With only minute expressions — since these children aren’t allowed to emote in this world — Letexier-Hart portrays Waseese’s desperation to escape her new life and find her mother.
I like that the supporting cast have their own personalities and story arcs, even without much screen time. It adds richness and depth to the world of the film and makes the story that much more relatable. The stakes of the film are also well-realised because of the performances of the ensemble cast.
Night Raiders isn’t a film to be passively enjoyed — it’s much too real and painful for that. It’s an extremely well-constructed and compelling narrative that uses simple but stylish methods to build a world and tell a story that is unique but easy to understand. This is the kind of commentary we can get when diverse stories are told by creators of color. Indigenous sci-fi is a genre that’s gaining huge in-roads in Canada — and with sharp stories like Night Raiders, that’s something we can look forward to.