30 Mar 2022

Movie review - Night raiders

From At The Movies, 7:30 pm on 30 March 2022

A totalitarian government kidnaps indigenous children and brainwashes them in the NZ-Canadian sci-fi Night Raiders.

Simon Morris: Some people say that we're moving into a new Golden Age of indigenous cinema - here and overseas.

What's different is that these films are being taken out of the "earnest, worthy" categories and opening up to comedies, romances, action and sci-fi.

You can entertain while you make serious political points, goes the argument.

Night Raiders is a dystopian-future drama, albeit made at a fraction of the cost of films like Children of Men - let alone The Terminator.

It's written and directed by Canadian Danis Goulet - it's her debut feature - and it's co-produced with Kiwis Ainsley Gardiner and Taika Waititi.

Night Raiders is set in the near future. There's been a disastrous civil war, and the winners have set up the sinister Academy. In it, children - mostly indigenous - are collected and brainwashed into joining the police state.

Some attempt to fight back - like Cree mother Niska, played by the statuesque Elle-Maija Tailfeathers.

Niska has been hiding out in the Northern wilderness with her daughter Waseese, but when her hideout is discovered by Academy drones, the pair flee back to the city, where they make contact with the few other free families.

For indigenous Canadian audiences, the basis of this story will need no explanation. It reflects the notorious Residential Schools last century, where Canadian authorities arbitrarily took custody of many indigenous children, with devastating results.

It's a theme that will chime with colonised peoples around the world.

Night Raiders translates this into a familiar sci-fi scenario, where young Waseese is taken by the Academy goons.

On the run, her mother Niska seeks help with the underground Resistance. One of its members is a New Zealander called Leo, played by TV star Alex Tarrant.

Alex is assigned rather more exposition duty - and less action - than is absolutely necessary.

But he takes it on the chin, and even jokes about his unlikely presence in an otherwise Cree Nation army, before summoning that too-frequent element in this sort of sci-fi fantasy - the unattributed prophecy.

I keep remembering Morgan Freeman in The Lego Movie - "it's true because it rhymes".

But in this case - the prophecy predicts a noble saviour who'll arrive from the North - it ties in with the traditional, indigenous atmosphere, like a sort of sci-fi Whale Rider.

The story of Night Raiders is a heartfelt and intriguing take on colonisation, using sci-fi to shine a new light on old, unaddressed grievances.

Particularly distressing is watching your own children taken, and then turned into tools of your oppressors.

Making a genre picture gives what could have been a rather dry message film an entertaining slant, though it is slightly constrained by its budgetary limitations.

It could have used a bit more action to pay off the efficient suspense sequences.

But it's undeniably a strong first step towards more and bigger to come. The talent pool of strong, indigenous performers - before and behind the camera - can only be good for future films.

There's clearly a hunger worldwide for a range of voices and faces on the screen.

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