Encounters with the Non-Human: Interview with Danis Goulet

Toronto Outdoor Picture Show continues its summer-long Dynamic Duos programme Thursday, July 4th, for the first Corktown Common Park screening of the year. Steven Spielberg’s classic E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial follows the friendship between a young boy and an alien who has recently fallen to earth. Paired with E.T. is the short film Wakening, directed by Danis Goulet, which portrays two characters from Cree stories in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic Toronto. 

We chatted with Danis Goulet about her short film and its pairing with an iconic sci-fi feature.

TOPS: This year’s programme theme for TOPS is titled Dynamic Duos. The relationship between the protagonist and the creature in your film is not clear from the beginning. What drew you to that mystery and ambiguity?

Danis Goulet (DG): The two main characters in Wakening are classic Cree characters from oral stories, Wasekechak (a trickster) and Weetigo (a cannibalistic being). They often appear together in old stories as rivals. In my work, I often think that what is held back is just as powerful as what is revealed. Mystery is powerful on screen, and hopefully when it works, it sparks curiosity and invites discovery. Creatively, I thought it was great to discover at some point in the story that Wesakechak is specifically looking for Weetigo and then reveal later that they have known each other.  

Also, as Indigenous filmmakers, we have been up against years of misrepresentation and underrepresentation in film. So, because aspects of our stories may not be widely known, there’s an impulse to over-explain things (especially culture). But I think it’s really important that we present our stories and realities just as they are, with no extra explanation. Culture just is, and it's much more interesting, rich, and alive when we don’t get didactic about it. 

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TOPS: What attracted you to the post-apocalyptic setting of your film? What are your thoughts on the post-apocalyptic genre in general, and what did you hope to contribute to it through your film?

DG: I don’t know that I had thought too much about the post-apocalyptic space before I made Wakening. In my work, I think a lot about the threads between past, present, and future. Because Indigenous oral stories are often thought about as representations from the past, I was really excited about placing these characters within a contemporary, futuristic setting. I also wanted to acknowledge the timelessness of these characters, to show that they will exist in the future. 

On a more serious note, the film explores colonization, and when you unpack just how profound the impact is, through language and culture loss, but also what an Indigenous person might experience in their daily lives, colonization can feel monstrous. In Wakening’s post-apocalyptic setting, the world is controlled by a brutal and destructive regime. In the film, I was trying to represent the experience of being under a force that is trying to eradicate your existence (and the world as we know it), which is what Indigenous people have to contend with under colonization. So, a post-apocalyptic setting is an obvious entry point into the experience of colonization. 

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 TOPS: Your film is screening with E.T., a very different film about the relationship between a human and a misunderstood creature. What do you think is the appeal of films that explore relationships between human and non-human characters?

DG: I love that my film is paired with E.T.! E.T. had a huge impact on any kid who grew up in the 80s and one of the succinct memories I have of kindergarten is sitting on the rug during circle time and talking about who saw the movie the night before. I was also very interested in aliens as a kid and E.T. is incredible because it approaches otherworldly creatures from a place of wonder and empathy. I think it’s really important to value non-human life (especially aliens!), as I would hope that it means that we are more humble about our place on earth and beyond. I think that it benefits all of us to be far less anthropocentric, maybe if we’re able to stop thinking that we’re the centre of the universe, we’d be less destructive. For my next film, I’ve actually been thinking a lot about our relationship to A.I. as well. As the scientists tell us, A.I. will become beings at some point. 

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TOPS: Your film was part of a large project to film short films in the historic Winter Garden theatre. How did the space inform your film?

DG: The Winter Garden is an incredible space. It was a dream location in terms of production design, because so much is already in the space. I love the enchanted garden motif within the theatre, with foliage hanging from the ceiling and the original wall paintings are preserved. Also, in old Cree stories, the Weetigo was a being that ate people and would be found in the forest. In the world of Wakening, the forests have all been destroyed. So, if the forests were gone, where would a Weetigo go? I had imagined that the Weetigo chose to live in this abandoned theatre because the foliage and forest theme reminded it of home. It was the closest thing to a forest that could be found in this world. So, the space became this fantastic dilapidated urban space that still represents nature in some way. 

TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why?

The iconic Thelma and Louise! Badass feminist rebels!

Wakening screens July 4th alongside E.T. (Steven Spielberg, 1982) at Corktown Common Park.