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Danis Goulet on Storytelling, the Apocalypse & Her Feature Film Debut NIGHT RAIDERS

By Marina Antunes [11.12.21]


Writer/director Danis Goulet had been working as a filmmaker, primarily making dramas, for years before her 2013 short film Wakening opened the door to the genre space. She saw the opportunity to tell important stories in a digestible, entertaining way and when it came time to create her feature film debut, she knew the way to tell her story was through genre filmmaking.


Night Raiders is the fruits of her labour. A project years in the making that has been influenced by both history and current events, the film unfolds in a near future ravaged by war and other disasters that have left much of the population decimated. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers stars as Niska, a mother surviving in the wilderness who soon finds herself working with a group of rebels to break her daughter and a group of other children out of a state-run facility and smuggle them to safety.


Goulet’s film is a post-apocalyptic treat featuring great world-building and storytelling, grounded by another great performance from Tailfeathers.


We recently had an opportunity to speak with Goulet about her debut feature, the struggles of creating a dystopian Toronto on a budget, and the future of indigenous filmmaking.


Night Raiders opens theatrically and is available on digital and VOD on November 12.





How did Wakening open the door for you to make Night Raiders?

That was a short film that I made back in 2012 and it was a genre film but it was a commission that came up really quickly and prior to that, I'd only been working in straight-up drama. And so when this opportunity came to make a film, I thought "I wonder if I could tell a story about classic Cree characters that were supernatural beings and they were called Weetigo and Wasekechak but as soon as you go to, you know, supernatural beings, it kinda takes you into the fantasy genre, which is something that I'd never really considered working in. But then I thought I could tell a story about the past and wouldn't it be interesting to take these classic characters and place them in a near future? And I kind of had no idea that all of this would work, but I just tried it out.

So I created a dystopian Toronto and it was just an amazing project. It opened up creative possibilities for me to work in the genre space. I really loved being in the genre space and I realized that I could still say all of the things that I wanted to say that were important to me and like in a political sense, but then I almost have more freedom to do it in a genre space. So when I went to make Night Raiders I thought I'd love to stay in this space for my first feature.

Where did the idea for the story come from?

Well, I think it was always about a parent and child because I knew I wanted to explore the impact of colonial policies on indigenous life. So even though it's set in an imaginary future, everything in the film is based on real historical policies. So there's nothing really fictitious in a way it's like looking back, but then placing it forward.

I was looking at the residential school system, which was about fracturing families. So I always knew it would be about a mother who lost her daughter and then would somehow find a way back to her. I also knew that this would be set in a dystopian world. As the story evolved, I think I was focused mostly on Niska, the main character and her journey without Wadeese.

For a while, the script actually just focused on Niska and what she was going through and not knowing what had ever happened to Wadeese. Then at a certain point, we realized that the heart of the film was really about the mother and daughter's connection. That's when I started to create the world of the academy Wadeese was in and develop what happens to her and parallel the two stories.



I want to come back to the world-building in a moment but one of the things that I thought was really impressive about the film is that - you talk a little bit about parallels and how this future world is very much based on the realities of the past, but you do it in such a way that it's not accusatory but more of a cautionary tale. Can you talk a little bit about this idea of learning from our past mistakes and moving forward as one. How did you come up with this fine balance of telling a story that's important and based in a relatable reality, even though it's a future reality that hopefully will not happen and still managing to, you know, be inclusive with your storytelling.

I think specificity and storytelling is a really important tool and just because something is super specific, like we're focused on an indigenous mother and her daughter and an indigenous community, it doesn't mean that there are not absolutely universal human experiences that are happening in the movie. So you set up all the circumstances and you know, of course, I have a message. Of course, I have something that I want to talk about, but the storytelling is always front and center.

I think to tell a good story you lead with the character. You lead with the journey, you lead with the drama, with the emotion. To me, it was so important that that emotional thread was all throughout the film because the rest of it is the icing. If we, as an audience, are able to just track with these characters and feel connected to them, we're naturally going to, you know, identify with them and their plight in some way.

And so then all of the external circumstances become secondary to that, just fundamental connection to characters to then say, I get this, I get what they went through. This seems really important. Ad then maybe, after they see the film, there could be some kind of recognition of the fact that this happened and that hopefully that now that we all are still here in North America and all of these things happened. It is important to grapple with the truth in order to decide how we want to move forward.

I think the truth has been denied and I think that that denial continues to do damage and so I think if anyone with a heart says "I don't want to continue to do damage in that way, let's do better" that's great. I hope it invites people into this conversation.



I love that the film is told from the female perspective. There are so many women of power within the film. How important was it to have a matriarchal story?

Yeah. It was super matriarchal and I was really excited about that. I feel like that kind of came from two different places. One is that there have been incredible warrior women in the indigenous activist communities and I think that, too often, the focus still seems to be male-centric but there have been so many incredible leaders that I've certainly watched. The other thing is that in the film community that I've grown up in, which is the indigenous screen community, there are also so many female filmmakers. There are in fact - sometimes they outnumber the men.

In the industry at large people talk about female representation and trying to get to 30% or 40% or maybe 50%. That's a huge thing. At festivals like imagineNATIVE, often the women directors are like sitting around the 70% mark. I don't know why that's the case, but I do know that I've been so inspired by the women that I'm surrounded with that are doing similar things to me and I wanted to reflect that on screen.



One of the other things that I wanted to ask you about is that the world-building that you've done. We're focused on one story but the world feels so much larger than that at every turn. I was curious if you could talk a little bit about working with your production designer, Zazu Myers and your cinematographer, Daniel Grant, to create this universe that is both familiar yet foreign and feels so much larger than what we ever get to see.

Thank you for saying that. We would go location scouting, the three of us together, and we would walk into a space and Zazu was an incredibly visionary production designer. She would walk into any space and immediately start seeing where things could be and what they could be and I think even in my first meeting with her, she started sketching the cages that we see in the academy. We were taking inspiration from images from history or real life, but then you just think, what is the embellishment of that? Like, how do we push that just a little bit further creatively?

Even the drones. Drones exist in our world but how do we just push what they do and what their role is in this world a little bit further, or the fact that they are in the story they're supposed to resemble mosquitoes, you know? Zazu was just so incredible and the three of us just put our heads together and just started drilling down from the moment we would scout a location to once we were shooting in it; all the different ways that we could go at it to the world.

What was the most challenging part of production?

We lost a major location a few days out from production and had to completely reimagine a part of the story so that was really tricky. Also because I wanted the world to feel so tactile and not feel like you're surrounded by green screen, we really did insist on finding locations for so much of everything we were shooting, and there's a lot of disparate locations in the film. So just by virtue of having to move around a lot and be at the mercy of the elements, I mean... we got kind of lucky but like we were always outside shooting somewhere and then doing a unit move somewhere else. It felt so ambitious. It was like, why did we make this ambitious?



Well, it certainly pays off on screen. I'm curious since you have this universe and this clearly very well-developed timeline, are there plans to tell any more stories within this universe that you've created?

Maybe. I've been asked this question before and because I keep getting asked that I wonder if I should because I've lived with these characters for years so I feel like I know all of them really well. I feel like there's potential. So maybe I should.

One of the things that's become more prevalent over the last couple of years, at least it feels that way to me from an outsider's perspective, is a rise in indigenous sci-fi storytelling. What can we do to keep the movement going and to create more space for indigenous storytelling?

We can all continue to advocate and cheer on and celebrate when these get made. I think when they get made, we should see them and if we see them and like them, we should Tweet about them. We've been advocating for this for a really long time, and we've been saying there's a hunger out there. But you have to prove to the marketplace that there's a hunger for it so we need as many people to sort of buy in and say, yeah, this is a cool movie that I would see, you know, and to be loud about it because we do want to keep going. You know, like there's a new film coming out called Slash/Back by Nyla Innuksuk. She's made this Attack the Block set in the far north, like a teen alien invasion movie. I'm so excited to be at this moment where there's people are working in so many different modes to tell stories in different ways. And we fought so hard to get here that it is really important for people to continue to support the stories that they love.

I'm curious if you could talk a little bit about how the ISO is helping to shape the future of indigenous storytelling.

So the Indigenous Screen Office was a body set up in Canada to support the indigenous screen sector and it's now become a funder that came into existence about three or four years ago. It came into existence after decades of advocacy to say that we need a home for our filmmakers, we need so many things advocated for. They play a central role in policy that determines, you know, how indigenous filmmakers are supported and they put out mandates, really crucial mandates, like "nothing about us without us."

They develop policy that responds to the needs of folks in the industry and they fund projects. They also funded us on Night Raiders. They funded the mentorship program that saw indigenous crew hired onto our set so that we had an indigenous presence there. They're really central, they're the hub that is helping to push change forward in our industry.

Night Raiders opens theatrically and is available on digital and VOD on November 12.



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