The world premiere of Danis Goulet’s first feature, “Night Raiders,” in Berlin generated positive reviews and led to a U.S. sale to Samuel Goldwyn. But to the Toronto-based, Cree-Métis filmmaker it all felt a little abstract.
“I haven’t seen an audience reaction, so Toronto feels like the premiere,” she told Variety during a break from directing the Netflix thriller “Ivy,” which shot around Toronto this summer.
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“Bringing ‘Raiders’ home is important because it talks about what’s happened here, in Canada, on this land,” added Goulet, referring to Canada’s residential school system — which operated from the 1870s to the 1990s and tore 150,000 Indigenous children from their families and cultures — and the discoveries this spring of unmarked graves of children at the sites of former schools.
Set in 2043 in a divided post-civil-war North America, “Raiders” follows a Cree woman (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) who returns from the forest to the city after her daughter is injured, and joins a Cree vigilante group that rescues children from militaristic state academies. The film will receive its North American premiere in Toronto’s Gala slate. This conversation has been condensed and edited.
“Night Raiders” draws its darkness from Canada’s past yet is set in the future. What was the appeal of genre in telling this story?
I started writing “Night Raiders” in 2013, when I made a short called “Wakening,” which was part of a commission celebrating the Elgin and Winter Garden theaters’ 100th anniversary. I’d been wanting to put characters from Cree oral traditions on screen. They are usually portrayed in quaint, folkloric ways, so I transported these characters into the future — a nod to their timelessness — and made a monster movie set in the Winter Garden in a dystopian future.
There is so much loss when it comes to what happened in Canada to Indigenous people. And yet there is so much that survives. Setting a story in the future frees you up creatively to talk about the past and the present in an imagined context.
What other factors contributed to the world-building of “Night Raiders,” in particular the idea for the resistance group?
Well, that was also around the time of Idle No More, which was an Indigenous resistance movement that swept across Canada in winter 2012. It was the largest Indigenous uprising I’d seen in my lifetime. With Indigenous stories, you often come back to loss and trauma because of the profound impacts of colonization, but there was something about that [Idle No More] moment that was about power,
This film was a way of speaking to my community, who have given me so much. It’s easy to get stuck in fight mode, there’s so much work to be done. But you also have to go into spaces that are nurturing and caring, because the fight always takes, it doesn’t give back.
Tell me about building the team for “Raiders,” especially the New Zealand crew — how did you meet Taika Waititi (one of the exec producers)?
Tara Woodbury was the key creative producer, and it was just us for a while. Then Paul Barkin came on board and he had a lot of experience in co-productions — which was always my dream.
The global Indigenous community is super-connected on the festival circuit. I met Taika at Sundance 2004, when we both had shorts there. Around the time we were looking for funding, I reached out to Taika and asked if he’s consider being an EP and he said, “Absolutely.” I wanted an Indigenous producer partner, and we met with Ainsley Gardiner, who produced Taika’s early movies. I had the idea of expressing on screen the solidarity that’s there between the communities.
You started out in casting so I’d love to hear about that process — did you have any actors in mind?
Not when I was writing. When production started, we worked with Rene Haynes, who focuses on Indigenous casting and has an incredibly wide network. When you’re casting Indigenous, you have to reach beyond the regular process. In an Indigenous context, you’re often asking people to dig into their own lived experience which comes with a lot of pain. I know that all actors do that, but in an Indigenous context you have to pay attention in a very heightened way to ensure actors feel safe.
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