Cinefest gala is a sci-fi thriller about a Cree woman living in the bush with her daughter, hiding from an oppressive regime seeking to remove children from their families and educate them in state schools
“Languages contain entire universes. They contain worldviews. They contain deep truths about the land that we’re all on. Where do you find heritage? Do you find it in a museum? For me, you find it in the language.”
That’s writer-director and Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet discussing her debut feature, Night Raiders, which is coming to Cinefest next week.
The film, which takes place in a dystopian future circa 2043, features a largely First Nations cast and extensive use of the Cree language. Even the movie’s poster has the title in both English and Cree.
“My dad speaks Cree as his first language,” Goulet says. That would be Keith Goulet, a former member of the Saskatchewan Legislative Assembly. “He learned how to speak English in school. He didn’t go to Residential School but he was taught by nuns that also taught at the Residential School in his home community. The nuns would still refer to them as ‘little black savages.’ My dad’s always been a very loud and proud Cree speaker.”
Night Raiders stars rising actor/director Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers (The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open ) as Niska, a Cree woman who has been living in the bush with her daughter (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart), hiding from an oppressive regime that seeks to remove children from their families and educate them in state schools. And yes, any resemblance to the Residential School system is completely intentional.
“It’s about the colonial policies that have impacted every aspect of Indigenous life,” says Goulet. “And the Residential School system … had a major impact. It was a system in place for seven generations of Indigenous families, so it touched all aspects of life.
“I just wanted to create an oppressive regime, but … every single element in the film was something that already had been imposed on Indigenous people.”
At the same time, examining these issues through the lens of science-fiction gives audiences a new way to grapple with an uncomfortable subject matter.
“Speculative fiction exists as a warning,” says Goulet. “So let’s hope it doesn’t happen again. But the impulse for it to happen again is always there.”
She adds: “The genre creates a certain freedom for me as a filmmaker, but it also offers a layer of protection to both all of the people involved in the making of the story … but also to broader audiences. It’s a fresh entry point into a subject that may fatigue them.”
It’s also part of a renaissance in First Nations genre filmmaking. Last year saw the streaming release of Blood Quantum, an Indigenous zombie horror from Mi’gmaq filmmaker Jeff Barnaby. Inuit director Nyla Innuksuk is working on Slash/Back, an alien invasion movie Goulet has called “Attack the Block but in the Far North.” And Tailfeathers is starring in Stellar, an upcoming feature from Ojibway filmmaker Darlene Naponse, about two people falling in love at the end of the world.
First Nations and sci-fi may not seem like a natural fit – which is precisely the point. “I always felt like our stories and our characters … were looked at in this kind of quaint, folkloric type of way,” says Goulet. “And I wanted to give power and gravity to those characters. And so there was something about the idea of placing them in the future … that was really appealing.
“And I think there’s always been threads of my work that are trying to talk about the way past, present and future all connect. Like the idea of a continuum. So I’ve always been interested in that, and in countering this idea of Indigenous people only existing in the past.”
Goulet is not fluent in Cree, but she gave her dad a small role in Night Raiders as an elder who is teaching children the language. And she regularly visits a Cree-language immersion camp with other members of her family, most recently in July. She smiles at the memory of it. “It’s joyful, it’s healing, and it goes to somewhere really deep.”
Night Raiders has an in-person screening at Cinefest on Sept. 25, 7 p.m.