Any film worth its salt should be able to stand on its own. Examining a single film for its standalone merits is what most film criticism and movie reviews aim to accomplish. But there is a good benefit in comparing films to further suss out their strengths and weaknesses. In this contrast we can better see what defines the films individually and makes them great (or not). Two such films are practically begging for this comparison.
Night Raiders and Beans were both released in late 2021 and have just as much in common as they have distinctions. Both feature a complicated mother and daughter relationship at their core. Both are Canadian and nominated for multiple Canadian Screen Awards (though in different years, thanks to premiere timing). Both were directed and written by women. The most crucial thing they have in common, however, is both films stare directly at the horrifying ways that Indigenous people have been treated in the past and continue to be treated today. The biggest difference between the films is in the way they do that.
Beans is a straightforward—though thoroughly upsetting—fictionalization of a historical incident. Co-written and directed by Tracey Deer, the film closely follows a tween nicknamed Beans (Kiawentiio) as she and her family struggle to get through the 1990 standoff between the Quebec government and the Mohawk Nation. What starts as some members of the Mohawk community standing their ground to protect sacred land devolves into a violent and terrifying situation. For 78 days the Mohawk people were starved, threatened, and attacked by the government and Quebecois alike. All of this is a lot to handle for Beans, and her already trying adolescence becomes entangled with her anger and fear of the cruel world surrounding her.
Night Raiders is the story of a science-fictionalized Canada where children are dragged to state-run institutions and the population is tracked by invasive drones. Writer/director Danis Goulet immerses us in the dystopian nightmare via a mother and daughter as they are first torn apart, and then fight to reunite. There is a dash of The Matrix here (the Cree Nation are searching for the foretold one to lead them to freedom) and a pinch of Blade Runner in the mix, but Night Raiders never strays too far from centring the Indigenous spirit or resilience.
To oversimplify, both Night Raiders and Beans use the tools of cinema to process similar experiences, but in totally different ways. In looking at them together we are asked to examine the ways in which fiction and nonfiction can tell these stories.
The fear and discomfort in Beans sits firmly in the fact that it is based on an actual, not-too-distant event. This horrific situation is not fantastical or imaginary. These things happened to real people who looked and thought like Beans, and they had to endure these affronts to their daily lives. Wrapping one’s head around the hatred spewed by the white Quebecois towards these perfectly ordinary families who happen to be Indigenous is practically a dystopia unto itself, but it is sadly very real.
Night Raiders plays with the notion of fiction and nonfiction a touch more than Beans. While the basic plot and world of Night Raiders is science fiction, the uncomfortable reality is that it is not too far off from our current world. Stealing children for the purpose of indoctrination has certainly happened, and continues to happen. The government spying on its citizens and using this intel to imprison and punish people of certain groups disproportionately is another unfortunately reality-adjacent version of hell. Because Night Raiders is so close to the surface of our own society, it prevents the audience from retreating into the self-soothing Hitchcockian mantra “It’s only a movie; it’s only a movie.” It may only be a movie, but you cannot look at the horrors within Night Raiders and quarantine them to a safe place in your mind for imaginary threats. These horrors are all too real.
As you can see, both Night Raiders and Beans lead us to the same realization, in two completely different ways. Whether it be reality or fantasy, the horrors of the treatment of Indigenous people comes through the screen clear as day.
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