Indigenous sci-fi film Night Raiders, a Canadian-New Zealand co-production, hits theaters this week. Charlotte Muru-Lanning interviews the film’s Maori wāhine producers, Chelsea Winstanley and Ainsley Gardiner, about the film and shares indigenous stories.
Jojo Rabbit; Waru; Merata: how mom decolonized the screen; The Pa Boys; Two cars, one night; The cousins; Boy. Together and separately, Chelsea Winstanley (Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi) and Ainsley Gardiner (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Awa) have worked as writers, producers and directors on some of Aotearoa’s most famous films these last time. two decades.
Their latest project, night raidersis a dystopian sci-fi drama written and directed by Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet. Winstanley and Gardiner were the producers of the film, a Canadian-New Zealand co-production.
Set in the year 2043, Night Raiders tells the story of an Indigenous mother who joins an underground group of Cree vigilantes in an attempt to rescue her daughter from a state-run institution. Both futuristic and historical, it is a contradictory analogy to Canada’s treatment of its Indigenous peoples, particularly through the boarding school system and the Scoop of the 60s – painful legacies not too far removed from our own colonial experience in Aotearoa. While explicitly indigenous – referencing history, politics and lore – Night Raiders also cleverly embraces science fiction in its purest form.
Making an Indigenous film in an explicitly forward-looking genre is a statement in itself. Colonization was an explicit attempt to erase the future of Indigenous peoples around the world – whether by stealing land, suppressing language, assimilation, culture, or genocide in the most literal sense. It is only through constant resistance and rebirth that we have survived and reclaimed our future. Telling our stories through the screen is a key part of this.
“We all want to tell our own stories,” says Gardiner. “So whether the stories are inherently indigenous or not, they already are because they are stories we are compelled to tell.”
But telling our own stories, in our image, can be an uphill battle.
The movie industry as a whole, which Winstanley describes as “still quite hierarchical, quite patriarchal, still based on an American Hollywood system”, is a big part of the problem. It’s a system derived from overseas, where cultural assumptions and commercial incentives are often at odds with the ambitions of native filmmakers. Gardiner and Winstanley agree that there is still a stifling lack of diversity in decision-making positions within the film industry. While the pair are constantly trying to innovate from within the system, they necessarily rely on the resources that others hold.
In 1985, filmmaker Merata Mita expressed her unease with the institutions of the New Zealand film industry in a “Manifesto” presented at the Auckland City Art Gallery, a “plea for diversity in our film industry”. She described the local film industry as abandoning “the reality of a cultural richness in our country” for “an overseas commercial market littered with banknotes”.
That was 37 years ago, and while there has been progress since then, it’s far from enough. When it comes to film distribution and exhibition, for example, it is assumed that indigenous films have no audience and are less commercially viable. This means they are often turned away by distributors or, if picked up, relegated to an 11 a.m. showing on Mondays. “It’s kind of BS,” Gardiner says.
These distributors and exhibitors are like “really bad parents,” she says, “instead of giving us delicious things to try, they just give us McDonalds.”
Yet things have improved dramatically for Indigenous filmmakers over the past few decades. Gardiner’s experience with Briar Grace-Smith in the adaptation of Patricia Grace’s book Cousins is a telling example. “You couldn’t have made this movie 20 or 30 years ago,” says Gardiner.
She speaks literally: In the 1990s, Merata Mita, working alongside Grace, faced many obstacles to bring Cousins to the screen. Backers simply didn’t believe a film focusing on three Māori women would appeal to audiences, and the project was eventually scrapped. By the time Gardiner and Smith took it over nearly 30 years later, attitudes had begun to change.
This change is also apparent in Night Raiders. Its mostly Indigenous cast, featuring both Indigenous Canadian and Maori actors, is still unusual on movie screens – especially in sci-fi – but you probably won’t even notice it while you’re absorbed in the story. . “You don’t see it, because it actually reflects your world to you,” says Gardiner. For non-Aboriginal audiences too, “it’s not that hard to introduce an alternate world to a person and make them accept and appreciate it.”
Winstanley and Gardiner say there was tremendous goodwill towards the film from Canadian and New Zealand funding bodies, based on the desire to support a project made by indigenous women. “It gave us a level of financial commitment beyond what we would have expected if we were judged solely on its commercial potential,” says Gardiner. Even then, says Gardiner, the commercial potential of Indigenous film should not be underestimated.
Productions like Night Raiders offer new opportunities for pan-Indigenous cooperation, both commercially and culturally. In the case of the Night Raiders, although Cree and Maori share similar colonization experiences, there are countless cultural and historical differences. Still, “internationally, Indigenous communities don’t have to try too hard to understand each other, because we relate to each other,” says Winstanley. Often, she explains, international Indigenous groups are more aligned in their processes than with mainstream film bodies in their own countries.
Change doesn’t just happen, it does, and Winstanley and Gardiner see their work as intervening not just in the film production system, but in the social system more generally.
Like parallel structures in education, governance, health, law and beyond, indigenous cinema offers an opportunity to disrupt entrenched hierarchies from within. “We can use the thing that we’re excited about to challenge structures in the area that we can, because you knock one down, and they all like the dominoes to start falling,” says Gardiner.
“It’s not like we don’t already have all the information about why structures don’t work, how colonization has impacted us, how those who colonized us tried to destroyed our stories and took our stories to resell. for us, as watered down versions, there is no more illusion and ignorance for us,” she says.
“The tide is changing,” says Winstanley. “It’s changing slowly, but it’s changing.”
In large part, they are driven by a desire to continue the work of those who came before them, especially the trailblazing Mita, who was instrumental in creating the global community of Indigenous filmmakers who made collaborations like Night Raiders. Like Mita, they are both mothers and their children are a constant reminder to invest in a better future.
With all of that on their side, the pair believe change is certain. “There’s nowhere else these organizations or individuals can hide out,” says Gardiner, of those who have held the purse strings since the movie industry was in its infancy. Like Standing Rock or Ihumātao, it’s all about the numbers. “It’s just enough that we come together and say we’re not going to do this anymore.”
Night Raiders is in cinemas starting tomorrow.