Danis Goulet’s Night Raiders is the latest in new wave of genre cinema that explores the ugly legacy of colonialism in Canada. The pulsing science fiction film effectively uses its dystopian postwar future setting to reflect on the country’s horrific past with residential schools.
Immediately dropping viewers into the tense climate of a devastated landscape, one where a war across North America has allowed a military occupation to seize control of society. Establishing state academies, under the guise of providing youth with better housing and education as society rebuilds itself, government soldiers routinely go around ripping children under the age of 18 from their families. Forcing the children into these institutions, regardless of whether they consent or not, the parents are told that they will be reunited with their kids once they have graduated the program.
Hearing that most of the taken children are never seen again, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) has spent years hiding her 11-year-old Cree daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) from authorities. Living off the land, and evading surveillance drones, the pair are forced to venture back into the city for the first time in years when Waseese sustains an injury and needs medical attention. Of course, it does not take long for Waseese to fall into the hands of the military. Determined to get her daughter back, Niska reluctantly makes a deal with a Cree tribe she stumbles upon who have come up with a risky plan to breach the academy in hopes of freeing the children.
The painful scars of residential schools and the ripple effect of the trauma it caused both the survivors and their families for generations pours over every corner of Goulet’s thrilling film. The Cree-Métis filmmaker is not shy about the blunt symbolism on display in Night Raiders, however, it never comes across as preachy. It is one of those rare films that manages to entertain while forcing one to confront the terrible ways indigenous children not only had their families, culture, and language stolen from them, but also suffered terrible abuse in the process. It is a testament to Goulet’s talents as a director, including her deep understanding of genre tropes, that the film works on multiple levels.
Regardless of whether or not one has any prior knowledge of the impact of residential schools on indigenous communities, one will be deeply engaged in the plight of the central characters in the film. Part of the allure of Night Raiders is the way it quickly establishes the rules of the world the characters inhabit. Through the strong performances of the ensemble cast and the effective set design, one understands the sense of despair flowing throughout society and the sense of community that Niska forms with those she encounters. Tailfeathers is especially good at bringing out the inner turmoil and guilt that Niska carries with her for most of the film. All of this makes the Goulet’s cinematic world feel real and not too far from the society we know today.
While the universal appeal allows Goulet’s film to soar high, it does not quite stick the landing. A key event in the climax, despite hinted at throughout, never feels as fully realized as the rest of the film. Still, this is a minor quibble in an otherwise solid science fiction thriller. In a year when Canadians, and the world, are finally opening their eyes to the legacy of residential schools, Night Raiders is an electrifying and necessary work.