Spotlight: Danis Goulet on Indigenous Futurism in Film

Still from “The Hunt”

This is Worldtown’s new series features Indigenous media-makers exploring themes of identity, reconciliation, and resistance through visual storytelling mediums.

Award-winning Cree/Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet‘s short films have screened at festivals around the world including Sundance, the Toronto International Film Festival, Berlin International Film Festival, imagineNATIVE and Aspen Shortsfest. Her 2013 film Wakening had premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Sundance Film Festival, and went on to win the Outstanding Canadian Short Film Award at the 2014 ReelWorld Film Festival. In 2012, her film Barefoot premiered at TIFF and was later recognized with a Special Mention from the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival Generation 14plus international jury. Her work has been broadcast on ARTE, CBC, and Movieola. Danis was born in La Ronge, Saskatchewan and now resides in Toronto.


How did you get started in the industry?

My first job was as an extras casting assistant on a CBC mini series in Saskatchewan called Big Bear, which actually had a Métis director at the helm, which was totally unheard of at the time and this incredible Indigenous cast. I went on that set and I caught the bug and what I didn’t realize was that set was a total anomaly.

I found myself in casting rooms and one in particular was for a casting director I was working with and the opening of the pilot had an “Indian princess” type character, which is a total archetype in what Hollywood has perpetuated about us. The character opens the series by standing in front of a waterfall and sacrificing herself. So she doesn’t say anything and she dies. Right off the bat, intro to the series. We were calling in all these amazing female Indigenous actors that I completely admired, and they were literally being silenced in front of my face. Silenced, and then killed on screen.

And it was a real moment for me. I just thought, casting isn’t quite going to cut it. I realized that the power is behind the creators of the film – writers, directors, producers. They call the shots, they’re creating the story from the get-go that create these characters that either sit there and die, or actually have more of a life; more complexity and more depth. And I looked around and it was like the penny dropped. Yup, we have to make our own films.

Can you talk about the themes in your work – specifically Indigenous Futurism. What does that look like, in your view?

Indigenous Futurism to me is very simple. It’s about imaginings of us in the future. Whatever form that could take. I think it can be seen in many different things, like music, fashion, visual arts and film. But to me it very simply means imagining a future for ourselves. And I also know that many Indigenous communities seem to be really big sci-fi geeks, and it’s interesting to think about why that may be.

I think a lot of the tropes in sci-fi lend themselves to marginalized people identifying with it. So if you even think of something like Star Wars where it’s the rebels against this intergalactic empire. That’s just like Indigenous people are the rebels, the empire is colonization and we see ourselves in it. Or alien stories where people get snatched away. That’s residential schools. There are many examples of sci-fi tropes that are perfect metaphors for colonization or things that we experience. I think that’s part of the draw. But I personally find it really exciting.

Still from “Wakening”

Can you speak about how you applied Indigenous Futurism into your film, Wakening?

The Idle No More movement happened right in the month that I wrote Wakening and, to me, it was the largest Indigenous resistance that I’d seen in my lifetime. At that moment, my work changed to be forward thinking, or future thinking.

I’ve always felt like oral storytelling traditions should be made to be dramatic in some way. I think sometimes these stories are thought of as folkloric kinds of things. To me, our stories are the classics of this land. In the same way that people consider Shakespeare to be classics. And I wanted to give our stories that type of gravity and power.

There’s a loudspeaker in the very beginning of Wakening and the text for that is taken out of the Indian Act. and it changes the word ‘Indian’ (which was the legal term for Indigenous back then) and changed it to ‘Citizen.’ It was like, imagine if life under the Indian Act was just actually for all canadians. There are some scholars that talk about Indigenous people as already having survived the apocalypse. All I was trying to do was bring the apocalypse to everyone so that hopefully they could empathize with that experience.

Still from “Wakening”

Can you speak to the idea of reconciliation in the arts and media, and what that looks like for Indigenous communities?

This time of reconciliation has been really interesting, and it started with the truth and reconciliation commission. What mainstream Canada really picked up on is the reconciliation word. Not the truth word. The truth is hard to handle. “Reconciliation” sounds like a happy, positive thing. Just like the word diversity sounds like a happy, positive thing. But the reality is that diversity and reconciliation are huge blanket terms that are very overused. And to do the work of either thing, it’s really challenging. Everything has been built on colonial structures that were not made to include us. So any time we are existing in Canadian systems, we’re hoping that we will be supported in whatever work that we’re doing. What we often end up finding is that these systems are built to be indifferent to us, and at the worst of times, outright hostile towards us.

We feel this as Indigenous filmmakers. We’re working under the weight of what colonization has done, and within film it’s meant that Hollywood has perpetuated negative stereotypes about us, and racist portrayals about us, or even just one-dimensional portrayals, pretty much since cinema began. So as filmmakers, we know this history and we’re up against it.

To me, things don’t change until people of colour, or marginalized communities, or Indigenous people are given decision making authority. We don’t want an Indigenous consultant on the Indigenous film. We want an Indigenous director, producer and writer. And on the commissioning side, we want Indigenous people as our broadcasters. We want Indigenous programmers at film festivals.

So what is diversity and reconciliation? It is getting out of the way sometimes. It is listening to Indigenous people first and actually just moving aside. And sometimes it is about seeding power. And those are really uncomfortable things to talk about.

What’s next for you?

I’m working on a feature that’s also dystopian. It’s about Indigenous resistance in the future. It’s called Night Raiders and it’s set in a dystopian world and it centres around a mother who’s on the run and has to seek out an underground group of vigilantes in order to get her child back from the state.

Catch Danis’s latest piece, The Hunt, a VR experience part of 2167, on at TIFF Bell Lightbox until December 31st.

You can also watch Danis’s award-winning short Wakening here.