'Beans' Director Talks TIFF Tribute, Black Lives Matter and Her Indigenous Voice

Beans-and-inset-of-Tracey-Deer
Courtesy of TIFF; George Pimentel/Getty Images

Tracey Deer's debut feature, about a Mohawk girl becoming a warrior during a 1990 armed standoff known as the Oka Crisis, also caps off the director's 30-year creative journey.

Canadian director Tracey Deer is set to receive the TIFF Emerging Talent Award at this year’s TIFF Tribute Awards, while also bringing her debut feature, Beans, to Toronto as a world premiere.

Both career milestones mark the end of a 30-year journey to fulfill a dream to become a filmmaker and overcome the trauma of a 1990 armed standoff between her Mohawk community of Kahnawake and the governments of Quebec and Canadian governments, known as the Oka Crisis — which provides the dramatic backdrop for Beans.

Deer tells The Hollywood Reporter about parallels between the divisive summer of 1990 and today's Black Lives Matter protests, where people standing up to racial and social justice are met with violence from police officers and the military that plays out on TV screens.

"To see the way the president of the United States is manipulating the information is appalling and disgusting," she says.

Beans tells the story of a Mohawk girl named Tekehentahkhwa, played by 12-year-old actress Kiawentiio, who becomes a warrior during the Oka Crisis on the Mohawk reserve of Kahnawake in Quebec to protect a burial ground from the construction of a new golf course. Besides navigating childhood, the Mohawk girl, also nicknamed Beans, struggles to find her activist voice as she confronts violent racism against her community.

Deer also talks about her place as an Indigenous person in Canada, having gone from a 12-year-old who felt worthless and without a voice to being handed a national TV platform during the TIFF Tribute Awards as she is feted with the Emerging Talent Award on Sept. 15.

How did you react when hearing you're to receive the Emerging Talent Award at the TIFF Tribute Awards?

When I found out, I started crying. I wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was 12 years old. As a young Indigenous girl with this big, crazy dream, I was told over and over again that was stupid and it was impossible and I ignored all these people and kept going for it. So, to now be here, to have my first feature at TIFF, it's already a dream come true. And on top of that, to be recognized with this award, it's almost too much. I'm really, really honored. I feel the struggle has been really worth it and I feel very validated and I do have something to offer. And that I'm a storyteller to be listened to.

At 12 years old, you and your family experienced the divisive summer of the  1990 Oka Crisis, the movie's backdrop. So the young heroine in Beans is very much your own story.

That's the summer I realized that I was different and it was not a good thing in this world to be an Indigenous person and it was the summer I decided I wanted to be a filmmaker. This has always been a dream project. I wanted to tell the story of the Oka crisis from the perspective of how I lived it as a child. It was so shattering and it really shaped who I was, both good and bad. And it's such a big story that it's taken 20 years in the business to find my confidence to tell it.

Your career has led you from documentaries and TV dramas with shows like Mohawk Girls, before making your big screen debut at TIFF with Beans. Tell us about that journey.

For the first ten years of my career, I was in documentaries and then I was in television for the last ten years. And the script took eight years to write. It really is a full circle achievement to have set this goal 30 years ago and now be actually doing it. Because of what I lived through when I was 12 years old, the message that I received was I wasn't important. I felt invisible. I felt voiceless. I felt worthless. And it did take a long time for me to find my way out of that. I was suicidal as a teenager. And I don't want any kids, and frankly other Indigenous kids, to go through the same darkness. And therefore we need to make the world a much safer place for them. We need to make sure their dreams are possible and their voices are celebrated. With this film too, it's an appeal to everyone to  be our allies and make things better so that our kids aren't growing up feeling invisible and voiceless and that they believe their dreams are possible. That's so important to me.

You will receive your TIFF Tribute Award on Canada's CTV network, which three decades ago chronicled the Oka Crisis. How far has Canada come when a 12 year girl and her community then painted in a bad light on nightly newscasts is this week handed a national TV platform?

We have made progress in this country. The difference from 30 years ago when I was a child to now, it's a drastic difference. There's still a long way to go. I do think the media has started to shift. For one, I will be receiving this award for a film I have made and there's so many Indigenous colleagues making their own work at the highest level. Our voice is now part of the narrative. Now there's so many of us. That's changed. There's a reckoning going on and an accountability that's been demanded. Broadcasters and newscasters, it's no longer just a choice. This is something they must be do, or there are consequences. A young girl can turn on the TV now and see so many different shows about her own people. And now she can go to a film festival and she can watch feature films about her life and her experiences, so I think that does point to a lot of progress.

The resistance of your community during the Oka Crisis and the Black Lives Matter protests today — different time, same issue?

Oh my goodness, it's identical. Again, it also depends on which news network you turn on. That vilifying now happening on many of these networks is for an essential social and racial justice protest that is long overdue and needs to happen, not only in this country, but globally. To see the way the president of the United States is manipulating the information is appalling and disgusting. And it is completely out of the playbook of what happened during the Oka Crisis 30 years ago. I just waxed on how far we've come, but now I'm going to go in the opposite direction and also say how absolutely disappointing it is that this can still be happening for issues that connect on human rights, on diversity, it's horrible what's going on, and it's re-traumatizing to see it happening.

Your film is inspired by real events 30 years ago. How did you ensure your cast and crew weren't re-traumatized as your cameras reconstructed a bloody confrontation between Mohawk activists and the Quebec police and the military?

This is one of my biggest concerns. It's important to share this story. But I didn't want anybody to be re-traumitized or traumatized originally, because a lot of the cast are kids. That was not a price I wanted to pay. We worked really hard to do everything we could think of, frankly, to address that concern. On some days, we had social workers with us. We had post-traumatic therapists in case anybody needed to talk. I spent time with both the cast and the extras to keep them informed and make sure that we had informed consent, that everyone was willing to go with where I needed them to to go. This happened even before extras were booked, because often they just show up and do what you ask of them. I spent time with them in the morning to explain what was going on. I told them if they could go to those ugly places, together we could do something great. And in between every take, we were smiling, we were laughing. For the kids in the cast, we kept their [sight] angles away from many scenes to minimize their exposure, to protect their mental and emotional well being. And a lot of the more uglier scenes were shot far away from my own and neighboring communities because I didn't want to bring up bad memories between our communities that we've worked so hard over 30 years to put behind us.

You and co-writer Meredith Vuchnich worked with Oscar-nominated story editor Christina Lazaridi. Tell us about that experience.

Myself and Vuchnich, we were so fortunate to be part of the TIFF studio in 2017. We were paired up with Christina and we were still struggling with the script. We knew it wasn't there yet, of course, that's why we were part of this program. It was such a great experience to have Christina come in with completely fresh eyes. And also as an American she came in with zero knowledge of the Oka Crisis and no personal ties to the Indigenous community. She came in with a blank slate. She asked me during our first meeting, okay, I've read it, and I want to hear from you why tell this story. I went into my spiel and I told her. And at the end of the session, all three of us were crying. Crying and laughing and talking about our childhoods. She just understood the film and she understood us. Her notes were invaluable. Here's the thing: when you see the film, you'll think there's a lot going on. But there was more going on before Christina. One of her big notes was to zero down, to figure out what the nugget of truth is and then cut away all that noise. And it was very noisy. With her help, we went back to the beginning and chopped away at the noise and rebuilt. There were many, many drafts to go, but that was the rebirth.

You've waited 30 years for your big screen coming out party, and your world premiere will happen during a pandemic. How have you navigated this part of the journey?

Yes, it's going to be a bittersweet experience. For us, we knew the film had to come out now. It's not a question to hold it. It has something to say for the time we're living in. But when I realized that meant people wouldn't have the experience of the big screen, without a proper sound system, it is heartbreaking. Eventually it will have its theatrical run. And I hope people come out to see it in the setting it's meant to be seen in. But we're all getting so used to watching content in homes and on our computers, I hope the film will still carry the same power that it would in a theater. It's bittersweet, I'm really happy it's coming out, but I so hope people experience it as I originally envisioned.