Arts·Q with Tom Power

How Reservation Dogs' brilliant use of 'gibberish' portrayed the horror of residential schools

Cree-Métis director Danis Goulet sits down with Q’s Tom Power to explain how she recreated the feeling of being ripped away from your own culture in the final season's third episode.

Director Danis Goulet explains how she recreated the feeling of being ripped away from your own culture

Danis Goulet wearing headphones, sitting in front of a studio microphone.
Danis Goulet in the Q studio in Toronto. (Amelia Eqbal/CBC)

When Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet found out she'd be directing an episode of Reservation Dogs that dealt with the trauma of residential schools — or boarding schools, as they're known in the U.S. — her biggest concern was how to tackle it the right way.

"It's such an intense topic and one that I've dealt with in my previous work," she tells Q's Tom Power in an interview. "It just requires a lot of extra thought and care to go into how you're going to handle it."

One of the most interesting creative choices Goulet made for this episode, titled "Deer Lady," had to do with recreating the horror of being ripped away from your own culture. She intentionally distorted the English words spoken by the nuns at the school to alienate the audience.

The effect is demonic, otherworldly and completely unsettling.

"It was always scripted as gibberish," she says. "To me, immediately, I went to, like, horror movie zone of how scary that can sound … but also, we really wanted it to be in the kids' POV, and they would all be Kiowa speakers, so they're listening to English for the first time and it sounds like gibberish."

LISTEN | Gibberish in Reservation Dogs:

To execute this, Goulet had the actors speak their lines backwards to make their words somewhat familiar as English, but with an uncanny valley effect.

"We were like, 'Oh, we could just mess with it in post,' but then it's not going to match the way their lips are moving," she explains. "It was actually the DOP that was like, 'Do the David Lynch reverse English thing [from Twin Peaks]!' So we wrote it out in English and used this app that switched it around, and then had the actors memorize this switched around version — like the reversed English version — and perform that on the day, which was super weird."

Director Danis Goulet pictured on the set of Reservation Dogs, Season 3.
Danis Goulet on the set of Reservation Dogs. (Shane Brown/FX)

Reservation Dogs, which recently concluded its third and final season, has been met with near universal acclaim, particularly for the way it's changed portrayals of Indigenous people on American television.  

With such a massive platform, Goulet says it was important to consider the best approach to introduce the cruel legacy of residential schools to audiences who may not be familiar with it, as well as to those who experienced this trauma first-hand, or who have living family members who did.

"When it comes to the depiction of violence against children, I think there's a line that you have to think deeply and carefully about," she says. "How much is too much, and yet how do you honour and hold the truth of what happened at the same time? So all of that was weighing very heavily on me as we shot the episode."

The full interview with Danis Goulet is available on our podcast, Q with Tom Power. Listen and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.

Interview with Danis Goulet produced by Cora Nijhawan.