For her debut feature film, Night Raiders, Danis Goulet set her sights high, tackling the monumentally heavy subject of Canada's residential school system. The Saskatchewan-born Cree-Métis director set about creating a dystopian sci-fi thriller about Indigenous children being stolen from their families by the state and taught to be something that they aren't—in this case child soldiers. It's a message about the residential schools that Goulet has wanted to convey for a long time.
"I started writing this back in 2013," she says, on the line from her home base of Toronto, "and I would say all of my work up until that point in some ways had explored the impact of colonization on Indigenous people. So when I went to make my first feature I was very much interested in talking about the impact of colonial policy on every aspect of Indigenous life, and of course the residential school policy is such a big one.
"But there are others. All the events and elements of [Night Raiders'] dystopian world are based on real policies that were inflicted upon Indigenous people, so for example their freedom of movement is restricted, which was a nod to the reserve system. And there's also an element of disease in the film—which is really chilling now that we're in COVID times—but it was actually based on smallpox and the effect of that coming into communities.
"The residential school system was a system that was in place for seven generations of Indigenous families," she adds, "so the impact of that has been absolutely profound, and obviously we are very much still grappling with it today. It's just so important that we continue to acknowledge the truth of what happened and keep the conversation alive somehow, and that's why I chose to tell a story about it."
Of course, the horrifying history of Canada's residential school system was magnified this year by the shocking revelations of mass unmarked graves being discovered at various former school sites. By the time those findings were making headlines, Night Raiders was already finished, but one wonders whether, if the project had begun after the news broke, Goulet would have aimed for a much darker film.
"Well, first off, this discovery of unmarked graves has been something that has been known, and has been covered as an aspect of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's report. But obviously the recent revelations bring up a lot for many communities, and I think in this year especially, September 30 is gonna feel like a national day of mourning.
"So it's been a really painful time, and it does situate the film in a different way. It certainly made me think, 'Oh my goodness, maybe it could have or it should have been darker', and at the same time, real life is so dark. And I also as a part of the story wanted to talk about resistance, and the power of it, and love, you know, really being at the heart of the story. For me it was important that when we were telling the story that it wasn't just about the trauma itself."
Set in 2043, Night Raiders stars Blackfoot and Sámi actor Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers as Niska, a mother trying desperately to rescue her young daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) from the prison-like military academy that all children under 18 are forced to attend.
"I knew about Elle-Máijá," explains Goulet, "but mostly as a director, because she's an incredible filmmaker. So when her audition came in I kind of remembered that she was also an actor, and when we got back to the callback stage, she just made me weep in the audition that she did. I knew right then and there that she was the one."
Goulet was also thrilled that American actor Amanda Plummer got cast in the film as Roberta, Niska's longtime friend, whose child has also been taken away. Although best known for her explosive role as Hunny Bunny in Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction, Goulet claims it was Plummer's performance in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire that made her think she could fit well into Night Raider's harsh world.
"I mean she is legendary," raves Goulet, "especially in independent film circles. But as an actor she is just incredibly riveting to watch. She is so committed and she absolutely makes interesting choices in every single take—and different choices, because she so responds to what's happening in the moment. To work with an actor that is that kind of liberated in their process is really an amazing thing for me as a director."
While Goulet talks about Night Raiders she is actually located in the editing suite of Ivy, the upcoming Netflix thriller she directed, which stars Alice Brago from the USA Network series Queen of the South. So does the fact that both of her latest films fall under the thriller category mean that she's particularly drawn to the genre?
"I like thrillers," she admits, "but in general I'm more drawn to the heart of the story and what it's talking about, and then for me the genre happens to be the container in which the heart of the story takes place. It gives you fresh entry points into topics, and also a kind of artistic freedom in the way that you talk about these things—like residential schools in Night Raiders. I love it and I will continue to work in it, but I'll just move forward on projects that really grab me in terms of what they're trying to say."
Night Raiders screens as a special presentation of the Vancouver International Film Festival at the Vancouver Playhouse on October 2 at 9:30 pm and at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts on October 3 at noon.