Future dystopian fiction tends to follow a number of tropes and themes; whether it’s in film, television or book form, there are certain things that you come to expect from these dark visions of futures that we all want to avoid. Normally they involve some terrible thing that’s being done to people, such as being forced to work as slaves, segregated into different groups, having your rights taken away, being told who you can love, or having your children taken by the totalitarian state. These injustices are often looked at through the lens of how it effects white people, and there’s usually a young cis heterosexual white person, often a woman, who stands up against this and leads a revolution to a better life.
The biggest problem with stories like that is that all of these nightmare scenarios – people losing their rights, being used for science, being forced and controlled – are all shown as being awful because they’re happening to white people. But these are all things that have happened across our histories and today, to people of colour, queer people, and disabled folks, to name but a few. Minority groups have lived through these kinds of scenarios, have seen their lives ripped apart by oppressors, and been ignored by those with the power to do something about it. And the ‘white saviour’ narratives that happen in dystopian fiction are just awful because that’s just not what happens. There’s just not one charismatic white kid who’s going to save the world.
Night Raiders knows this. It’s seen these tropes and these kinds of narratives before, but it’s also a film by people who have lived it. This story isn’t about white people coming to save the day because the things they’ve done to minority group has finally happened to them; this is the story of the survival of indigenous peoples, told by them.
The film is set in an America in the not too distant future of 2044, where a civil war has changed the landscape of the country, leaving most of the people we meet living under the heel of an oppressive government who want to control them, before finally deciding to kill them. It’s in this world that we meet Niska (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), a mother who has been keeping her eleven year old daughter Waseese (Brooklyn Letexier-Hart) safe out in the wilderness, away from the ruined cities. In this world all children are taken away from their families to be educated in military academies, where they become brainwashed to love the state, and trained to oppress their own people.
After Waseese is injured, Niska has no choice but to hand her daughter over to those in power in order to save her life. With her daughter gone she knows that she can’t live her life in peace until she gets her back, and begins to spy on the academy where Waseese has been taken. It’s here that she is discovered by a community of Cree who are helping children escape the compound. They agree to help Niska to get her daughter back if Niska agrees to take all of the children to safety, using her experience of surviving in the wild to keep them away from the government. Now begins the dangerous task of rescuing her daughter.
The cast of Night Raiders aren’t really actors that many people will be familiar with. Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers has only really done short films before this, and this is Brooklyn Letexier-Hart’s first feature film. And the relative lack of ‘star power’ helps this film. It makes it feel more real and grounded, that these are regular people living through this, not some Hollywood star. The two leads give great performances throughout, with Tailfeathers really selling the feeling of a tired, worn down woman barely holding things together.
Director Danis Goulet, who also wrote the script, clearly know dystopian fiction; the story ticks off a lot of the things that you’d expect to find in this kind of story. The cities are bombed out shells, forcing people to live in cramped, squalid conditions; the people in power use more advanced weaponry and technology to keep people in control; and there’s an underground movement trying to fight against it. But it’s also clear that this isn’t just someone just wanting to make a dystopia story, but that she’s got something she wants to talk about.
The things that happen in this story are direct parallels to things that happened to America’s Indigenous population. Their homes were destroyed; their children taken from them and’ reeducated’; they were forced from their land; and those in power attacked them with disease and viruses. As such, those that stand against them aren’t looking at this as a sudden, shocking turn of events, but simply the latest in a long history of genocide that has been committed against them. They talk about this in the film, they don’t shy away from it, and they call their oppressors colonisers – because that’s what they are.
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The way the film is shot feels like it reflects this too. We don’t get big, fantastic visuals like dystopia films such as The Hunger Games or Maze Runner, things here have a much more grounded and personal perspective. The action scenes are fairly pedestrian, there’s no big explosions and amazing fighting moves, just normal people trying their best to stay alive whilst tired and worn down. And the final confrontation evokes images of things such as the Black Lives Matter protests, or the attacks on protesters at Standing Rock. And this seems to be a very deliberate thing. It’s like Goulet is trying to remind the audience that when a corrupt and cruel government comes for people it doesn’t like, it won’t be some big budget action scene that plays out, but a painful, tiring, and awful fight against a foe that can easily wipe you out.
Night Raiders isn’t your average sci-fi dystopia, it’s trying to do something different by centring non-white voices and leads in this kind of story. I’ve seen people giving the film criticism for using too many tropes, or for people not feeling like they can connect with the story because of the focus on Native People, and these feel incredibly unfair, as it does more with the genre than a lot of other similarly themed films; it’s just doing it in more subtle and important ways.
Night Raiders is out on Digital Platforms on 6th December from Signature Entertainment.