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Night Raiders is a radical work of art: TIFF Review

Photo courtesy of TIFF
Photo courtesy of TIFF

I guarantee you haven’t seen a movie like this before. Night Raiders is action-packed, brilliantly designed and has white-knuckle thrills from start to finish. Not only is it the best movie of TIFF 2021 so far, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Part Hunger Games and part Prison Break, writer and director Danis Goulet is drawing on centuries of Canadian history to create her masterpiece. Her idea is a wild transformation from real-life Indigenous stories into a bleak, futuristic thriller.

Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, star of OFFA 2020’s The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open, plays mother and tracker Niska, desperate to protect her 11-year-old daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) in a world where all children are forced to go to state-run schools in a military occupied city state, left in rubble after an unspecified war in 2043.

After Waseese is taken, Niska goes on a mission to get her back with help from a team of Cree vigilantes dedicated to rescuing children from the evil Emerson State schools. But that’s just the start of the discoveries Niska’s about to make.

The parallels between the militarized Emerson State authorities and legacy of residential schools that were in Canada for over 100 years are no accident, and while there is nuance is how the authoritarian power is described, the condemnation of their tyrannical privilege is far from subtle.

Night Raiders is certainly timely, especially following the events in Canada this past summer. But it’s not just a film highlighting the conversation of Indigenous reconciliation - it’s also an outstanding movie on the merits of its filmmaking.

The dystopia sets, props and costumes are phenomenal - the production and costume designers have created an incredible world of overgrown cities, war-torn rubble and Orwellian-like schools designed to strip all children, regardless of their original background, of their true identities.

Conformity or murder is the expectation, and the world surrounding the kids and adults alike continues to rot because of it. We the audience can digest the comparisons to how Canada, the USA and beyond continues to disrespect Indigenous populations easier than a regular history lesson because the film is science fiction, but it doesn’t make confronting the problem any more comfortable.

This is Goulet’s first feature film and she’s got a home run. Her work is thematically strong, visually spectacular, and heartfelt throughout its pulse-pounding action. This is everything great cinema should be: exciting, engaging and deeply purposeful.

Just as Niska stands out for her resilience and creativity in a discouraging world, so too does Goulet’s work stand out for taking her personal Cree-Métis heritage and using it as inspiration to make this tense, intelligent thriller.

So how does Goulet propose we move past the trauma and suppression of identity? That question exists both in the film and in active reconciliation today. This is where the words of a village leader, discussing how to save the kids, tells us the first step: “We travel together. This is what we as people must do.”

This is an absolute must-see at the festival. There are more digital rentals and in-person screenings set for next week, and the film is scheduled to be released nationwide in just a few weeks. Night Raiders is nearly flawless and the most exciting movie of 2021.

Night Raiders

10 out of 10

14A, 1hrs 41mins. Sci-Fi Fantasy Action Thriller.

Written and Directed by Danis Goulet.

Starring Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Brooklyn Letexier-Hart, Alex Tarrant, Gail Maurice, Amanda Plummer and Suzanne Cyr.

Available for TIFF digital rental on Friday, Sept. 17th, with tickets and rentals available here. Opening in theatres locally and across Canada on Oct. 8th.