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Vincent Schilling
Indian Country Today

The Indigenous sci-fi thriller film “Night Raiders” that aired at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is gaining international recognition for its futuristic storyline that is based on the realities of residential school horrors of the past.

Night Raiders film poster

Directed by Cree/Métis writer/director Danis Goulet and starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (“The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open,” “Blood Quantum”), and Brooklyn Letexier-Hart (“Burden of Truth”), “Night Raiders” explores the story of the world in 2043, where all children, in this case regardless of their race, become immediate property and wards of the government.

"Night Raiders" trailer

Tailfeathers portrays Niska, an Indigenous woman frantically protecting her daughter Waseese, played by Letexier-Hart, from the government, who wishes to take her daughter and place her into the governmental children’s academy, a military-type schooling system bearing a close resemblance to residential schools that housed Indigenous children in the U.S. and Canada.

The film addresses the concept of indoctrination and colonization by the government against the people, a concept Goulet says is the foundation of her work.

Danis Goulet, director of "Night Raiders"

“I would say all of my work across the board deals with the impacts of colonization in some way, but I felt that it was important to talk about residential schools because it was such a massive far-reaching system,” she said.

“The fracturing of families is such an effective tool of colonization because it causes intergenerational trauma — as we know in our own families. There are some really shocking things in the film. Like, for example, when the one character who was a mother meets up with her son and without giving any spoilers, it really shows the horror of the schools.”

Tailfeathers says working on the film with Goulet was a dream come true.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska in the Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller film, “NIGHT RAIDERS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

“‘Night Raiders’ is such an incredible film. It's the first film of its kind and working with Danis was an absolute dream. Playing Nicka was truly one of the greatest experiences of my life.”

Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, who portrayed the young daughter and female protagonist Waseese, also said the film was an important one as well as an amazing opportunity to work with people she greatly respected.

“This is a very important story that needs to be shown (about) the background of residential schools. Having Indigenous Natives and Maori people together was also very important. Elle-Maia, I just really look up to her and I learned so much from her. I was really happy to be able to work with her and build such a strong relationship with her.”

Truth is stranger than fiction

The horrors in “Night Raiders” take place in a fictional setting, yet the realities of residential schools in the past and the atrocities committed against Indigenous families are real. This concept of “truth is stranger than fiction” is not lost on Goulet or Tailfeathers.

A still from the Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller film, “NIGHT RAIDERS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

“In the broad public, there can be a kind of denial that it wasn't really that bad. It wasn't really that awful, you know, and why won't Indigenous people just get over it?” said Goulet.

“There was something about this near-future fictional setting that allowed me to place all of these things that have been done to Indigenous people all in the same space. It was a dystopia, and that kind of oppression, which moved Indigenous people onto reserves, restricted their freedom of movement, restricted their right to practice their cultures and banned their languages. I think people still don't understand what an impact that had and yet when you place it all in a fictional space, it's all there. And then you can hit it as hard as you want.”

Tailfeathers shared a similar feeling as Goulet. “it was so reflective of the true experiences of Indigenous people across this continent. I think placing it in this world, this post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller allows for audiences to have that one degree and that sense of removal from reality. But just knowing that it is rooted in the truth and that these experiences that we witnessed on screen actually did happen and continue to happen, was a pretty profound feeling. It feels like make-believe, but we were never forgetful of the fact that it was the absolute truth.”

Canada and New Zealand join hands

The film’s name, “Night Raiders,” alludes to the name of the Indigenous resisters outside the confines of the government. They belong to a community without much means of support — a synonymous sentiment to the outlying Native tribes that became reliant on military forts after forcible removals from their homes.

Alex Tarrant as Leo in the Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller film, “NIGHT RAIDERS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Both Goulet and Tailfeathers agreed that the Indigenous community portrayed in the film, both off and on camera, was what made the film such a joy to work on. Additionally, the film is a combination of efforts between Canada and New Zealand, an Indigenous first for the Canadian film industry.

“There are so many aspects of the story that are triggering, that are really hard to work through because they're so close to, to reality,” said Tailfeathers. “I don't think I could have done it if it wasn't for that environment that Danis built for us. I was able to continue just go to work every day and tell this difficult story because of that culturally safe environment...It was honestly so much fun to be on set every day. Aside from those really difficult scenes, there was just so much joy and so much laughter every day on set.”

Gail Maurice as Ida in the Sci-Fi/Drama/Thriller film, “NIGHT RAIDERS,” a Samuel Goldwyn Films release. Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films.

Goulet shared her own family’s experiences with regard to residential schools, and how she herself was affected negatively, but that the community of the film set, with both Indigenous First nations and New Zealand, cast members, brought her joy on the set.

“In spite of all the difficulty in the world, I loved those scenes in the camp because it kept coming back to the way that we've survived all of this. And that's been through the love between us, you know, the love of our cultures and languages and the love of each other in our communities.”

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