Night Raiders: A Striking Debut
Review by Thom Ernst – Film Correspondent
(October 20, 2021 – Toronto, ON) If the future in Danis Goulet’s feature debut, Night Raiders, looks familiar, then perhaps history is not so far from the past. Goulet utilizes the tropes of science fiction—dystopia, state rule, and mysterious flying orbs—not to predict what’s to come but to bring the past into focus.
Goulet maintains a strong presence at film festivals worldwide, directing award-winning shorts. Short films require a discipline unique unto themselves and are not necessarily a route to feature films. But Goulet effectively leaps to features as though she were gliding into the next phase of her career. Whatever struggles endured to get Night Raiders made it seem effortless on the screen. The result is a powerfully told story of colonialism approached as a science-fiction suspense thriller.
Cinema frequently turns the galactical invasion story into an opportunity to heighten the heroic bravura of North Americans defending their nation without a glimpse of recognition that their ancestors were once the invaders.
Goulet doesn’t go so far as to cast her invaders as otherworldly; instead, the invaders are an all too familiar earthbound breed which makes Night Raiders as much of a fable as it is science-fiction.
Night Raiders begins with the invasion in place. A mother, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and her daughter, Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) retreat into the woods, living a nomadic existence away from government eyes. Their routine seems tranquil, but they are on constant alert behind their casual discussions of werewolves and vampires. At any moment, they could be confronted by the foot soldiers of a ruling police state.
Niska and Waseese are fugitives not because of a crime against humanity; their offense is to defy a law that’s inhumane. Waseese is of school age, and it is required of all citizens that children under a certain age attend a state-run educational institution.
Goulet’s analogy of the past becoming the future could run amok with over-wrought similes and all too recognizable correlations to the ugliest blemish in Canadian history. But despite a strong narrative focus, Goulet tells a captivating adventure.
The film brings to mind Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, Ray Bradbury’s Farenheight 451, and even Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster—films depicting a dystopic society clouded by a rule that promotes confinement and controls thinking as a tool for progress.
In the openings scenes of Night Raiders, knowing that the story is leading towards a conflict of the individual against the state, there is a feeling of dread. The idyllic (although alert and guarded) life Niska creates is doomed to fall apart. But it’s not dread that carries the film. Night Raiders is held together on the possibility of victory even when faced with the probability of failure.
Goulet divides the story between mother and daughter when circumstances separate Waseese from Niska. Niska continues her life without Waseese, believing her daughter has a better chance of survival by conforming to the system.
At the institute, Waseese finds an acceptance she hadn’t expected; perhaps her survival skills are more robust than anticipated due to her years living off the land. Waseese begins to believe the message assimilation leads to a better life.
But when Niska encounters an underground rebellion, she reneges on her decision and joins the efforts to free Waseese from the grips of the institution. The rebels, a diverse group of Indigenous cultures and backgrounds, believe Niska is the coming of a promised saviour, a reminder that ideology assumed to be the sole property of Christians did not begin with the colonist’s arrival.
The film works within the limits of its modest budget, carried on the strength of its performances and a story that incorporates a folklore tradition within a science-fiction mold.
Night Raiders is a striking debut from a promising young director. It is directed by Danis Goulet and stars Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, and Amanda Plummer. As of Mid-October 2021, Night Raiders was playing in selected theatres.
Thom Ernst is a Toronto based film critic and writer and an active member of the (TFCA) Toronto Film Critics’ Association. His work has appeared in various publications including Playback Magazine, The Toronto Star, and The National Post. He is known to CBC Radio listeners for his lively contributions to Fresh Air, Metro Morning, and CBC Syndication as well as appearing on-air for CTV News Channel and The Agenda with Steve Paikin. He was host, interviewer and producer of televisions’ longest running movie program Saturday Night at the Movies. Currently he can be heard interviewing Canadian filmmakers on the Kingston Canadian Film Festival podcast, Rewind, Fast-Forward.