When what is known about the residential school system in Canada from the first half of the 20th century is too ugly to comprehend, the government program that pulled away 150,000 Indigenous children from their parents and dispersed them amongst various Christian boarding schools around the country, cutting all ties with their heritage, Danis Goulet knew a sober depiction was bound to close off the conversations she wanted to have about her country’s tortured past before they could begin. She could take comfort in the future, seeing the rise of the Idol No More movement spearheaded by Jessica Gordon, Sylvia McAdam, Sheelah McLean, and Nina Wilson, a trio of young women from the First Nations and a non-Native ally whose public protests around Canada had turned the spotlight on the issues with greater intensity than they had seen in decades, but in a more direct way to her work, she was commissioned to make a sci-fi short “Wakening” around the same time in 2012, which dealt with military occupation, and had found first-hand how the remove of a not-too-distant future with just a little bit of the unknown could open up avenues of reflection that would be otherwise shut off.
“Night Raiders,” Goulet’s triumphant debut feature, will surely be enjoyed by anyone for the same purely visceral pleasures that made dystopian sci-fi dramas such as “The Hunger Games” and “Children of Men” so affecting, yet even with the film set in 2043, the writer/director is careful to note that every story beat is connected to a real episode in Indigenous history. Although the film may imagine the characters of Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), a mother and daughter of the Cree tribe who are separated as the Canadian government sets about scooping up students for its militaristic Academy, but as Niska joins forces with others from the Indigenous community that hope to take down the Academy base of Bigstone while she simply hopes to rescue her child, Goulet shrewdly observes how forms of oppression and those carrying them out may take a different shape but remain the same in their intent.
While the film is bound to open up eyes to this disgraceful chapter of history, “Night Raiders” is equally revelatory as a muscular and enthralling blockbuster, wildly inventive in its world-building while remaining highly attuned to the human stakes involved. And as the collective power of Indigenous communities working together off-screen, it’s thrilling to learn of how Goulet brought together native Canadians and New Zealanders (Taika Waititi, Ainsley Gardiner and Chelsea Winstanley are all producers on the film) for a production of such size and scope, working independently to make a film that is clearly uncompromised in any respect. Presiding over a shoot where it wasn’t uncommon to pause for a ceremonial “smudge,” a spiritual cleansing that was beautifully observed before the film’s gala premiere at the Toronto Film Festival this year, Goulet demonstrates in “Night Raiders” not only the impact this singular story could have but creating a model for how these stories can continue to have such resonance in the future if only they’re told with such care and consideration. With the film arriving this week in America in select theaters and on VOD, the filmmaker – and former programmer for the Toronto Film Festival – spoke about setting up the environment in which her crew could thrive, pulling off the film’s epic feel on an indie budget and how a last minute epiphany in the editing reframed the entire film for the better.
You’ve said that you had a bit of an epiphany during the making of “Wakening” that changed your thinking about how to tell indigenous stories where the future could speak to the past. How did that manifest itself into your thinking aesthetically?
Yeah, my earlier films were straight up dramas, and one was a quiet film that felt like a doc/drama hybrid, and another could maybe be characterized as more of a social realist film. But when I started out and I was involved in the Indigenous film community through Imaginative, the Indigenous Film Festival in the early and mid-2000s, I became aware that the birth of Indigenous cinema really comes out of the activist documentary and filmmakers like Merata Mita in New Zealand, or of course, the great grand diva of documentary in Canada, Alanis Obomsawin. those films were hard-hitting, and they led with their message and they were out to change things. They just had this like incredible energy that has been a huge influence.
I also did a stint of programming at TIFF, where you get immersed in all kinds of world cinema from all over the place, and at a certain point, I remember actually seeing Andrea Arnold’s short “Wasp” at Sundance and I was just slammed by that movie. I was just like, “Who is this? This is amazing.” And I’ve followed Andrea Arnold since and I feel like there was a time when, as a young woman filmmaker, I was really into social realism and that was probably going to be my pathway. But then “Wakening” came up really quickly as this foray into genre that I did as a commission and all of a sudden, genre opened my eyes up to what the possibilities could be if you took these things and put them all into a space — from activist documentaries, to social realism, to the genre films that I grew up on. I loved “The Matrix” when I saw it, and then I grew up on all the ones that everyone else of my generation did, so I feel like I ended up in this space that I just really loved to work in that started with “Wakening” and then progressed into “Night Raiders.”
You appear to always have had an affect for intimate, tight compositions, which seems to really serve you well in “Night Raiders” when the moments you open up the world, it really feels much bigger. What was it like either adapting your style to a larger scale story like this or finding it lent itself to this?
Yeah, I had worked with the same cinematographer over many films, all the way back to “Wakening,” but we made a film called “Barefoot” in my home community of La Ronge and we started to create a way of working together where the camera is tight but it was because that was a story about someone who had a secret, so we wanted it to feel very claustrophobic. Yet we wanted the camera to have the freedom to move and be roving and relentless in a way, so it’s like a messy, roaming master that moves through space in this almost relentless way, but then also doesn’t really give you space ever. We worked on that together, and I definitely felt more influenced by social realism and the attempt to shoot in that way more [typically] seen in independent films, but then when you take those aesthetics and you take them into a genre space, it can be really cool and it makes sense. When you’re talking about oppressive worlds, where characters Niska in “Night Raiders” don’t get any room to breathe, and they’re constantly on the run and they’re in a dangerous world. There’s a sense of being seen and surveilled at all times, so you don’t want the visual language to give people much room to breathe except in key moments.
What was it like finding locations and perhaps envisioning them differently in a context like this?
A part of it as well was that I really wanted everything to feel tactile. In a lot of genre films, sometimes you can start to feel like you’re with actors on a green screen for the whole time and I wanted in this world to feel that you could touch it. We had all kinds of things that we were up against [in terms of budget], but I just felt like, “No, I really want a real wall. I really want these certain things to be on location,” and then we can embellish it or [create a] set extension with VFX, but it did mean that our location scouting and finding and all of that became a real ordeal. In the end, we really did get the wall — it was a real structure that we could then build on top of with VFX and that tactility was something that I always thought about when we were making decisions about all of this.
It’s a different way of thinking about it, but in terms of building on something real, I was so moved to find out that that was your real father in the film teaching Cree when I understand he’s a real sounding board for you. Was that role always earmarked for him?
Oh, for sure and I actually made a film with my dad early in my career where I made him act onscreen, but he’s involved in the development of everything that I do because the language and the concepts that come out of the language is part of the specificity that I’m really interested in bringing to the screen. When I develop things, I just sit down with him, and we talk conceptually about things and then I start to weave it into the development, and he’s involved at every stage. Sometimes he helps as a translator. Sometimes he helps with conceptual things or decisions that need to be made about everything from different Cree dialects to what would be a response in a situation that feels authentic from a Cree point of view. So to have him make that little appearance in the film was really important to me, and my dad was an educator early in his career, so it just made so much sense on a lot of levels.
You actually had a producer as well in Eva Thomas, whose role was dedicated to ensuring a culturally conscientious shoot. What was it like having her on set?
Yeah, Eva Thomas was actually holding a huge piece of the film, and I think this is an essential piece for any Indigenous production. We obviously know that we’re up against 100 years of cinema history that has misrepresented us onscreen, so as Indigenous filmmakers, we think a lot about representation, but we also think a lot about how in the process are we making sure that we’re doing things in the right way? And for us, we were trying to tell a story that had a lot of gravity for people, so we had to make people feel safe in that space. Part of that had to do with the way that we involved cultural practices, but also the outreach that we would do to Indigenous communities and the way we would work with elders and get advice about things. Eva was the center of all of that in the role of an associate producer, and I think on a traditional film set, this role will wouldn’t necessarily exist [because] she was doing regular producing duties as well, but the cultural piece that she was holding was essential to the film. To me, it was just as important as any other kind of producing and in the industry, it’s not necessarily valued in that way, but I’ve made sure to just be very clear with everybody out there and with Eva, herself, just how essential and crucial the work that she was doing was for the film and for everybody involved in it.
Was there anything that might’ve been unexpected that you came to embrace during the production?
Just because we were on location and never inside, we were at the mercy of the weather all the time. We had block shoot the hill scene, which is the final scene, right next to the bus scene, two of the biggest sequences in the movie [over] two days, which all across the board was not enough time to shoot these, so I still I’m surprised we even got it. But it was raining the two days of the bus, and the two days of the hill were sunny, so I was just like, “What luck do we have to get the elements to line up with our film schedule?” Then the elements were so perfect. That bus scene, you want it to feel as depressing as it truly is, and we couldn’t pay for a rain machine, but everyone was sopping wet and soggy and it just does so much work for us. Even though we were all miserable shooting those days, I still love the way they look.
It was interesting to hear that the narration that opens the film may not have actually been your original intention, but its sets such a tone even if you take away what it means in terms of exposition. How did you crack it in the editing room?
I’m so glad you brought that up, because we got close to the end of the edit. We were in the fine cut stage, and I was at that moment where I’d lost all perspective, so I needed to take a break. I went to a really trusted mentor and just asked, “What do you think this needs?” And we just started talking about how it felt like there was something missing from the container for the journey that everybody goes on. Sometimes voiceover is an easy device, but in the context of Indigenous stories, as soon as you hear the voice of an elder, there’s something that starts to happen, and especially Pauline Shirt, who is a respected and renowned Cree elder and part of the Toronto Indigenous community. There was something about Niska and Waseese being participants in something that were bigger than themselves, that felt like when you heard Pauline’s voice, it contextualizes their journey in that way and gives it this enormous gravity. The first time we did it, I wrote the dialogue, and then my editor and I listened to it, and we just got the shivers. We knew that we had found the missing piece. And it’s really scary, because you think you’ve done a film, but we were like, “Oh, there’s something not quite right and it’s really hard to put your finger on it.” And the fact that we found that, and it was so perfect, it really elevated the film to the next level.