Night Raiders is one of the biggest Canadian films to come through VIFF this year, at least in terms of buzz and word of mouth. I had the chance to see it last week (and you can read my review here), and this week I had the great privilege to speak with Danis Goulet, the film’s writer and director.
Ed. Note: This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Matthew: Let’s just dive in; how is the response been to the film?
Danis Goulet: So far, amazing! We were at [Toronto International Film Festival] and then the Vancouver International Film Festival, and we got a standing ovation at TIFF. It was amazing, it felt so powerful to be watching it finally, with people in a theatre, and I’m really excited for it to go wide this weekend and to hear more of the response from everybody out there.
Matthew: Was the film delayed by the pandemic at all?
Danis Goulet: We did finish it towards the end of last year –and I think certainly the pandemic influenced when we chose to release it, for sure– but we actually luckily shot everything before the pandemic kicked in. We did the remainder of post in the pandemic, but we were able to work through it, albeit a little bit slower.
Matthew: How was the production process? I understand you had Taika Waititi on board as an executive producer and a number of Canadian talents as well. How did that all come together?
Danis Goulet: It was amazing. The cast is so incredible to work with. We were a Canada-New Zealand co-production, so we had an indigenous New Zealand presence on set as well, which was incredible. Plus, this mentorship program via the Indigenous Screen Office. Being on set was incredible; although we were telling such a hard story –and there were many difficult moments– there was also so much laughter and joy amongst all of us.
Taika came on as a supporter before we went into production and his name just opened so many doors for us. I know that he just really cared to support another indigenous film. So we were so lucky to have that.
Matthew: And that’s where Alex Tarrant, who played Leo in the film, came on board as well?
Danis Goulet: Exactly. Alex was a part of the New Zealand casting that was all run through the producer we were working with down there, Ainsley Gardiner, and then that presence that we were able to bring to shooting as well.
Matthew: How was the casting process here in Canada?
Danis Goulet: It was incredible. We worked with a US casting director to look North America wide for the young girl of Waseese –who’s written in the story as 11 but who has to carry half of the movie on her shoulders. We looked at over 300 kids; we looked far and wide, and then we found a Brooklyn in Winnipeg. When we were getting closer to production, she came in to audition for a different role. Right away, I said, “we need to see her for Waseese”, and she came in and I just knew that she was the one.
I had known Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers for years as a filmmaker in her own right. She’s made some beautiful films. I was reminded that she was an actor, and she came in to audition for us, and I was like, “Oh my god, she’s incredible“. When she flew to Toronto for the callbacks after her audition, I was moved to tears because of where she was able to go in the audition room, and there was no question that she was Niska at that point.
Matthew: It’s always nice when that art and artists come together like that.
Danis Goulet: Yeah, it was incredible. The two of them really do carry the movie on their shoulders. The places they went and the courage it took for them to go there were so inspiring to me, and their performances solidify the emotional core of the movie.
Matthew: The film draws a lot, least to my eyes, on Canada’s terrible history of residential schools and colonialism and paints this dark future based on that. Is there anything specific you’d like people to take away from the film?
Danis Goulet: I feel as though speculative fiction exists sometimes as a warning. For me, it was important that we look at the truth of what happened, that we really look at the profound impacts of these policies on indigenous life so that people understand what it’s actually like to go through when your children get taken away from you.
What I hope what it does is that it sends a message to all of us –whether we’re indigenous or not– to say that we have to be vigilant to make sure that this never happens again. That we support indigenous people in finding healing and justice because this is what Canada was founded upon, and it’s really important to look at that closely and then determine how we all want to move forward together.
Matthew: That’s a real call for empathy in my mind.
Danis Goulet: Exactly, yes.
Matthew: Was there anything you wanted to do in the film that you were unable to do, either due to budgetary or time constraints?
Danis Goulet: I think there’s always things that you want to do, but yeah, there were certain, like scaled-up things that that got scaled-down –but not in a substantial way. There was a scene that we shot over two days, and it really could have been four, in order to really go big with what we were endeavouring to do. We were very pressed for time on some of the key sequences. I feel like we got through it, but if I were to do it again, there are areas where I would definitely wish we had more time or more resources to go even bigger.
Matthew: What is something about the film that no one’s asking you about that you wish people would ask about more?
Danis Goulet: One of the things that I’m most proud of, I would say, is the inclusion of Cree language in the film and how important that is when we’re talking about a story of indigenous resistance. The language contains like worldviews and universes, and it’s so beautiful and poetic. It adds a richness to the film that is so important.
For myself, personally, my dad is a Cree speaker, but the language did not come down to me, so the opportunity to put the language on the screen in the way that I did in the film is really meaningful for me personally.
Matthew: Maybe it’s a bit early to ask, but sequel plans?
Danis Goulet: None yet, but you’re not the first person to ask! So maybe I ought to start thinking about that.
Matthew: Talking about the Cree language and your dad being a Cree speaker, If you did do a sequel, do you think you’d expand it out to more nations and languages?
Danis Goulet: Possibly! Part of the camp already includes different nations –although it’s predominantly a Cree camp, where everybody’s speaking Cree– there’s also just little tidbits like a character that passes another and says “aanii“, which is the Anishinaabe greeting for hello. There’s also the Maori character that lives in the creek camp, and then the character Somonis –played by Violet Nelson– she’s actually a character from the west coast that has been adopted into the Cree camp.
So just as it reflects real life, like those of us that live in urban centres, we’re in multi-nation, indigenous communities. Many of the friends that I have here are either Anishinaabe or Haudenosaunee because I’m here in Ontario. So I was excited about exploring that in some way.
If I were to stretch further into that, it would become more challenging because all of us, as indigenous filmmakers, think so much about representation. When you’re representing a culture that’s not your own, it does require so much more work and humility and collaboration in order to get the elements right, which is part of what we committed to on the Maori side of the film. It just comes with great responsibility, whereas if I work in stories that are Cree or Metis that come from that context that I’m familiar with, which is easier to draw.
It was a pleasure speaking with Danis, and she is obviously a smart and thoughtful human and artist.
Night Raiders played a part of the 2021 Vancouver International Film Festival and will open in Canadian theatres today.
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