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TIFF 2021: Night Raiders Review

The best science fiction movies use extraordinary premises to distill simple human truths. Sci-fi films feature robots, aliens, and interstellar travel, but at the end of the day, they deal with humanity’s struggle to transcend its innate flaws.

Horror and sci-fi films use the guise of genre to create emotional safe spaces where viewers can process challenging ideas. For decades, crafty filmmakers used science fiction as a cover to sneak controversial issues into mainstream movies.

Writer-director Danis Goulet’s dystopian thriller Night Raiders carries on the tradition. Night Raiders examines a real-world atrocity (the Canadian residential school system) through the lens of a sci-fi-tinged caper flick.

Night Raiders takes place in the year 2043, when Canada and the United States are no longer bastions of freedom. After a toxic political system ignited a civil war, the two countries merged into a single State. This North American State is a divided nation of haves and have-nots. The haves live comfortably behind an impenetrable wall. The have nots scrape by amidst a military occupation that dictates children over five are state property.

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Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) has spent the last five years off the grid hiding her 11-year-old daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) from the State. Their luck finally runs out after Waseese falls ill. Since Waseese is undocumented, Niska can’t get her the treatment she needs to survive. Niska’s left to make a harrowing choice: hand Waseese over to the State or watch her die. With a heavy heart, Niska chooses life.

Flash-forward 10 months, and Niska stumbles into a group of Cree freedom fighters who rescue kids from State-run children’s Academys. Niska teams up with these night raiders to free Waseese before she’s psychologically damaged by the State’s brainwashing program.

The best sci-fi films take difficult subjects and use them as metaphors and allegories. Sometimes they’re obvious, and sometimes they’re tucked away deep inside the story’s subtext. District 9 uses South African apartheid to tell a wild tale about an alien refugee camp. The symbolism is on the nose, but District 9’s strange premise is so far out there that it creates distance from the South African history the film interrogates. What’s peculiar about Night Raiders is the razor-thin veil between its dystopian premise and its real-life parallel. In this instance, the subtext is the text.

Goulet packs a handful of timely issues into Night Raiders’ svelte 97-minute running time. The movie covers residential schools, illegal encampments, immigration, colonization, Big Brother states, refugee crisis, police brutality, political polarization, and a viral outbreak. That’s a lot of heavy topics to address in one movie. To the film’s credit, Goulet presents these issues within the flow of a tense thriller, so it never feels like Night Raiders stops and takes a time-out to preach or finger-wag.

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Like Night Raiders, Stephen S. Campanelli’s 2017 film Indian Horse looks at the horrors inflicted upon Indigenous children through Canada’s residential school system. Indian Horse provides an unflinching look at the residential school experience, forcing viewers to experience the brutality thrust upon the kids. The film gives viewers a front-row seat to humanity at its worst.

Night Raiders is equally wrenching, and it doesn’t depict acts of depravity to stir up the same visceral reactions. Instead, Goulet anchors this sci-fi story in a mother’s love. Niska’s shattered spirit is all it takes to emotionally eviscerate you. Her separation from Waseese shows us everything we need to see. A thousand Waseese’s have been torn from a thousand Niska’s, and that thought is almost too much to bear.

Night Raiders would easily come off as didactic and overbearing in the wrong hands. Hollywood is littered with examples of white filmmakers showcasing black and brown suffering. These movies rollick through our collective agony like it’s a playground. They pick at our collective anguish like a raw nerve. Not Goulet, thankfully. Goulet masterfully draws attention to a real-life atrocity without revelling in suffering. Night Raiders is bleak, true. But it’s not grief porn either. Goulet balances out the emotional low points with instances of love and resilience.

A filmmaker resorts to brutality when they don’t trust themselves to convey the weight of their story. That’s not the case with Night Raiders. Goulet approaches the material with nuance, understanding, and most importantly, restraint. It helps that she has Tailfeathers to level us with emotional gut punches until we’re raw and weary. When Niska’s heart breaks, we shatter.

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