An Indigenous Canadian director channels traumatic memories into film

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An Indigenous Canadian director channels traumatic memories into film
Tracey Deer, an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker, in Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Canada, Oct. 30, 2021. Guoman Liao/The New York Times.

by Laurel Graeber

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Tracey Deer can still remember the sound of rocks hitting the car, her panicked mother’s orders to “Get down!” and the loud smash as a back passenger window shattered, showering glass over her screaming little sister.

Deer, an Indigenous Canadian filmmaker, was only 12 on Aug. 28, 1990, when a white mob hurled stones and racial insults at vehicles filled with Mohawk women, children and the elderly, all trying to evacuate a reservation near Montreal. The Oka crisis, a dispute between Canadian authorities and the Mohawk people over land rights, was reaching its height, and the frightened children crouched on the floor until Deer’s mother could drive on.

“My sense of safety was stolen from me,” Deer said. “My sense of self-worth, as of that moment, was nonexistent.” But after spending most of her adolescence consumed by anger, she said in a video interview, “I ended up finding a way to channel that instead into my drive to prove all those people wrong.”

One result is “Beans,” her first narrative feature, which was named best picture at the Canadian Screen Awards this year and has collected more than 20 prizes on the film-festival circuit. The newly released drama is a long-sought milestone for Deer, 43, a screenwriter, director, documentarian and television showrunner. (She was a creator of comedy-drama series “Mohawk Girls,” streaming on Peacock, as well as a writer for “Anne With an E” on Netflix.)

A fictionalized version of her experiences, the film focuses on a bright, ambitious Mohawk girl, nicknamed Beans (portrayed by Mohawk actress Kiawentiio). She lives with her family on the Kahnawake reserve, as Deer did, and has applied to enter seventh grade at an elite, mostly white academy that’s similar to the school Deer went to before graduating from Dartmouth.

“I wanted to be the one to tell the story,” Kiawentiio (pronounced Ghee-ah-wen-DEE-o) said via video from Canada, where she was shooting the new live-action “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series for Netflix. Thirteen while filming “Beans,” she felt a personal connection to the history, having grown up in Akwesasne, a reserve not far from the conflict. “A lot of people from my community went there and were helping,” said Kiawentiio, whose own parents were teenagers at the time.

Beans’ journey begins when she is caught up in the real protests that unfolded after the mayor of Oka, a town near Montreal, announced plans to expand a golf course onto land containing a sacred Mohawk burial ground. Devastated by the violence that ensues — she is present when gunfire erupts at a confrontation between Mohawk demonstrators and police, precipitating the 78-day crisis — Beans falls in with a rough crowd of Mohawk teenagers. They include a charismatic boy who tries to force her to perform oral sex; the scene is based on a sexual assault Deer experienced when she was 20.

“It’s a big story,” said Anne-Marie Gélinas, founder of EMAfilms, which produced the drama. “And Tracey’s challenge was to talk about, of course, the bullies outside,” which in the film include the government and real estate developers. But, Gélinas added in a video call, “she also wanted to talk about the bullies inside her community.”

Although Beans’ struggles relate specifically to her time and place, they are likely to resonate with anyone who has raised an adolescent — or been one. When Beans practices profanity in front of her bedroom mirror, smiling proudly when she finally utters a curse, it’s impossible not to notice the doll and stuffed animals still on her bureau. And any viewer will be alarmed when a tough older girl encourages Beans to harm herself so she will be impervious to the pain inflicted by others.

“It doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of the Oka crisis,” Deer said, adding that the character is coming of age “in a tumultuous, unwelcoming world that is indicative of where we currently are.”

An incident during filming reinforced that view. Deer shot “Beans” at several spots where the historical events occurred, including the Honoré Mercier Bridge, which Mohawk demonstrators blockaded during the crisis. It’s where the rock-throwing confrontation, re-created in the film, took place as well. When Deer began shooting in 2019, the structure was partly closed for maintenance. But some motorists, she said, assumed the movie crew had shut down the route.

“They were beeping and yelling at us and revving their engines,” said Deer, who added that the occupants of one car began shouting racial slurs. Thirty years after the Oka crisis, she said, “the same kind of moment played out.”

To show that she was not distorting the historical backdrop, Deer used archival footage throughout the film, in one case inserting an actor into the Mohawk protesters in a 1990 news clip. “Nobody remembered it to be so violent, so negative, so traumatic,” Gélinas said, describing audiences’ reactions in Canada, where the response to “Beans” has been overwhelmingly positive.

Although the Oka conflict ended in September 1990 with the cancellation of the golf course expansion, disputes over the land rights continue. But in the Canadian cultural sphere, the concerns of Indigenous people are gaining increased attention, said Jesse Wente, chairman of the Canada Council for the Arts and executive director of the Indigenous Screen Office in Toronto. (The organization supports Native film projects but did not contribute to the financing of “Beans.”)

“I think what you’re seeing is maybe an industry that is so ravenous for stories that it’s realized it has to open the gates beyond its usual suspects,” Wente, who is Anishinaabe, said in a phone interview. He added that while Indigenous representation in the Canadian film industry had been largely confined to documentaries until recent years, artists like Deer were now delving into many genres. “What that means is that Indigenous cinema is about to become commercial in a way it never was,” he said.

Likening Deer’s film to Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing,” Wente said, “‘Beans’ is exactly what happens when you empower storytellers from a community who’ve had stories told about them forever, but rarely have had the opportunity to tell them themselves.”

But Deer, who lives outside Montreal with her husband, stepson and a foster baby boy, often worried that “Beans” would never be made. Traumatic memories filled her with grief and anxiety as she struggled for years to write the script. In 2015, Deer finally approached Gélinas about hiring a story editor, now credited as co-screenwriter: Meredith Vuchnich.

“I was a good barometer,” Vuchnich, who is not Indigenous, said by phone, explaining that Deer could use her to gauge the general public’s understanding of the crisis.

“Beans” also evolved slowly because of Deer’s other projects, one of which heightened awareness of the film’s themes and introduced her to its lead actress. After reading the “Beans” screenplay, Moira Walley-Beckett, creator of “Anne With an E” — an adaptation of the 1908 classic “Anne of Green Gables” — hired Deer in 2018 for the series’s third season, in which the title character befriends a Mi’kmaq girl, played by Kiawentiio. The girl is forced into a residential school, one of the Canadian institutions with a long history of abuse and neglect of Indigenous pupils, a record that was further documented with the discovery of hundreds of children’s remains this year.

“We wanted to unapologetically, fearlessly tell that truthfully,” Walley-Beckett said. “And it was hard. And it’s a huge credit to Tracey that we were able to.”

Developments in the United States, where the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements have highlighted the inequities faced by women and people of color, have also made this a propitious moment for “Beans.” The movie, Deer said, is being released at “the most influential time that it could come out.”

“I realized my biggest wish back then and even today is to be seen, to be heard, to be understood,” she added. She reflected on the film’s final scene, in which the camera lingers on Beans’ face. “That’s why I hang on her for those seconds that I do,” Deer said. “See her. See us.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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