VIFF ’21 Review: ‘Night Raiders’ draws on Canada’s dark past to imagine a dark future

Canada has a certain reputation that we like to uphold. We’re viewed as America’s nice neighbour, as the reasonable ones. The thoughtful and the multicultural ones. If you’re from here, though, you know that Canada’s reputation is not as deserved as we would like you to think it is, and we have a dark history of racism and colonialism that persists to this day.

This is the history that writer and director Danis Goulet draws on to imagine the post-apocalyptic world of Night Raiders, one in which the legacy of Canada’s treatment of indigenous people –and the Residential School system in particular– is drawn out to its logical darkest endpoint.

As the film opens, Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and her daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) have been living in the bush for years following a war that resulted in a fascist regime taking power. They live in hiding not only because of the brutal conditions most are forced to live in but because the state also takes possession of all children and sends them to academies where they are indoctrinated and trained to be battle fodder for the government. When Waseese is injured beyond Niska’s ability to heal, they head into the nearest city, and Waseese ends up taken to one of these schools.

The parallels to Canada’s past should be immediately apparent. The Residential School system existed from the mid-1800s to 1997 (within my lifetime). Christian churches and the Canadian government set them up to take indigenous children from their parents and indoctrinate them into white, European societal norms. In the film, this is taken to what feels like its furthest extreme: every non-white child is taken to these schools and along with indoctrination comes regimented military training.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers is the core of the film, and her performance as Niska is quite good. Her desperation and defeat in the first half especially are heartwrenching. In addition, Amanda Plummer gives a good supporting performance as a family friend whose own child was stolen by the state years before. Her unique screen presence really works in combination with the world created here.

If the film stumbles, it does so because of budgetary limitations. The themes the film explores are well thought out and delivered, but there’s preciously little action. When it comes time for a big final setpiece the resolve the characters arcs and the story, the lack of available funds becomes even more apparent in how few players there are and how the CGI looks.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that the world created in Night Raiders is terrifying, but it’s ultimately all too believable. What choices have we made to avoid this future, and what choices do we still have to make? There are no easy answers, especially when considering that this future might resemble the very recent past –or the present– to anyone of indigenous descent.

Night Raiders is playing in-person as part of VIFF 2021 on October 2nd and 3rd (book tickets here), followed by a Canada-wide theatrical release by Elevation PIctures on October 8th.

Festival du Nouveau Cinema

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