Tracey Deer

Director Tracey Deer talks Beans | Inspired by the Oka Crisis

by Billie Gagné-LeBel

As Canadians are forced into a reckoning of systemic racism with the discovery of thousands of indigenous children’s bodies in residential schools, the release of director Tracey Deer’s Beans couldn’t be more timely.

Beans is inspired by the true events of the Oka Crisis, which took place in Québec and Kahnawake in the summer of 1990, as a conflict between the city of Oka and the Kahnawake reserve over the construction of a golf course on Mohawk burial grounds spun out of control, spurring racist violence and eventually involving the Canadian army.

The movie follows its titular character, a 12-year old Mohawk girl nicknamed Beans (Kiawenti:io), along with her little sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) and their mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), through the horrific events of that fateful summer. Not only is the film inspired by true events, but it’s also based on the experience of Deer: she was twelve when the Oka Crisis took place, and she told me all about it during an emotional interview on the Summer Solstice.

Beans opens in Toronto and Vancouver theatres on July 23, and across Canada on July 30.

Kiawenti:io in Beans
Kiawenti:io in Beans

First of all, I wanted to say congratulations on your first feature film. I know that you worked on TV before with Mohawk Girls. How is the experience of filming a feature different from TV?  

So typically, television gets filmed a lot quicker than a feature. However, we had so much to film with Beans that we actually had to film at a fast pace. I do think that my television experience really did come in handy, so there wasn’t such a massive difference in that regard.

Something I found interesting about the movie is that you included a lot of archival footage, which felt almost documentary-esque. Can you tell me about that choice?

The first reason is the whole film is through the perspective of this young girl, and one of the things when you are young is that you don’t always know what’s going on in the adult world. That was certainly my experience at the time, so we wanted to stay true to that. But as a viewer, you did need some context.

Those archival moments rounded out the story and gave the viewer enough context to know what was going on in Beans’ world. I also wanted to make sure people really understood that this really did happen. I think that when you are uncomfortable as a viewer, it’s a safety mechanism, when you see something you’re uncomfortable with, to say, ‘Oh, I’m sure that didn’t really happen,’ or ‘I’m sure that the filmmaker is exaggerating, there’s no way it was that bad.’ And I didn’t want to let the audience off the hook like that.

The archival moments are also there to back up the fiction, especially those uglier moments of violence.

My third reason is very often truth is stranger than fiction. I could write them all into a fictional script, but why do that when they actually happen and the footage exists? And oh, the fourth reason was, the film is really to counter the narrative that the media put out there 30 years ago. In order to counter that narrative, I wanted to juxtapose it with some of that media coverage.

“Every person holds personal power and can make a difference. I truly, truly believe that. It was a very long creative process and it really took a long time to get here, but I feel so strongly that it took that time in order for it to be the film that it needed to be and for it to be coming out in this moment where it can make the most difference.”

Tracey Deer, director & co-writer

It worked really well: it was shocking. Did you feel like it was cathartic for you to make the film and to kind of relive those experiences through your lens?

It was very cathartic, very healing.

Back when I was a child, I had this very shattering coming of age summer. I think one of the big descriptive words I would use to describe it is powerless. The difference in now making this film is that it’s the very opposite. I held the power and I was able to put out the story that that I wanted to put out and I was in charge of how we tell that story. It was really important to me and to the team that that we didn’t tell the story at any cost. We filmed it all in order to keep people safe, in order for us to have fun, even while tackling such dark subject matter.

To be able to reclaim the most difficult time of my life, and put it out there for the world for Canadians and Quebecers to now grapple with, to take that burden off of myself and off of my own people and put it back in the hands of those that caused that terrible summer; that is very healing, very cathartic and very liberating.

Were there moments of friction or maybe discomfort, or maybe triggering moments during the filming for the cast or the crew? I saw that you had quite an extensive team of extras, both Quebecers and native, and I couldn’t help but think, how did it feel to relive those moments?

We had some very delicate days, but there were no surprises for anyone, we all knew what we were setting out to do each day. We had indigenous social workers with us, we’d have PTSD specialists with us, available to anyone who might need. It was a very emotionally safe set.

In between the moments of really ugly racism, we all made a concerted effort to keep the energy and the positivity really high. It takes a full day to shoot what ends up being two minutes on screen. When we yell action, we go to these difficult places, and then the key is always coming straight back to who you are.

The marching orders that I gave them was to please go as dark as you possibly can for the film and for the power of the film, but as soon as we yell cut, just come back to who you are and bring as much positivity to the day as you. I certainly had moments where I had to cry, and I had to take a few deep breaths and recenter to get back to the job. A lot of it hit really close to home.

Violah Beauvais as Ruby and Kiawentiio as Beans in Beans
Violah Beauvais as Ruby and Kiawentiio as Beans

Of course. Were there any other team members that had lived through the Oka crisis, that had been there as you were?

Some young extras were too young to have lived it, but there were many of them present that had lived it themselves. Yes, so many survivors were there.

And you had two young actresses in your main cast: Kiawenti:io (Beans) and Violah (Ruby). How was it to work with them in regards to the more violent scenes? How did you make that work?

We had a very strategic shooting plan for all of these violent scenes that removed the kids from the actual violence. Often, when you see them screaming and crying and calling for the mother, they don’t actually know what is going on. I told them what’s going on, but they don’t actually experience it. They’re using their imagination completely in those moments. The only time they actually saw what else was going on was once the film was all pieced together, and they saw the film.

Whenever possible, we also use body doubles: for the sexual violence, that’s what we did, so that these two young people were not actually having to do that. They each work with a body double who was an adult woman. There were many steps like this that we took along the way to keep it as safe as possible.

How did they react when they saw the film? Where they surprised?

We did a virtual screening with the cast before the premiere at TIFF, and then we all jumped on Zoom together. We were able to speak about it and, the reactions were really across the board. Some parents were a bit shell shocked: it’s a lot to see your own child kind of go through that, right? But everyone who’s a part of the film is all really proud to be a part of it, and to have it out in the world. And, you know, these young people, they took this job very seriously. They were really proud to be a part of making sure the story is out in the world, and they were extraordinary to work with.

I also loved Rainbow Dickerson’s (Lily) performance. It’s very visceral. There’s this scene when they drive and Lily’s sobbing and she had snot all over her face… it was so powerful. How was it working with her?

She is incredible. Here’s the thing: when you’re working with young actors, you’re only able to work with them for a certain amount of time each day. We had a lot to do every single day, and of course, wanting to give the kids the time that they need to do the scenes, what ended up happening is, Rainbow would always get a really tight period, at the end of the day, to do her part. And she’s so incredible to just come in and nail it so fast. It allowed a lot of the time to go to towards to the kids. I mean, I want to work with all of them again, you know, I just adore them.

That’s fantastic. How was how was the collaboration writing with Meredith Vuchnich? It’s inspired by your own personal experience: what did she bring to it?

Meredith joined the project first as the story editor. I was really struggling. needed somebody to bounce ideas off of, and she came on board as a story editor, she created a really safe space for me to be vulnerable. When it came time to go to draft, because she had been in it with me for so long, I asked if she wanted to come on board as a co-writer.

One of the great things about Meredith coming on board is she’s coming into the story as a complete outsider, and I was coming at the story as a complete insider. There are blinders on with both of those positions.

When you’re an outsider, there’s many things you don’t know. But when you’re an insider, there’s many things you’re not thinking of because you’re so connected to it. I think we had a great partnership in shaping the story.

What made you decide to make this film? Was there a deciding moment, something clicked, or was it just always in the back of your mind?

This is the ultimate passion project. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a little girl. I was 12 years old when I lived it. I was 12 years old when I decided I want to be a filmmaker, and it was always in my mind: one day when I am grown and I made it as a director, this is the story I want to tell. It’s 30 years in the making in that regard, but the actual creative process was about 10 years.

Amazing. Congratulations again. All right, and we’re going to end on a more serious note: the timing of the film’s release in theaters comes at the middle of a reckoning that we’re having as North Americans, and also Canadians, since George Floyd last year. The whole uncovering of racism and systemic racism, and in their last few weeks, the horrific aftermath of residential schools and the discovery of children’s bodies. The timing of the film feels very strong. I know you’ve been working on it for a decade now, so it’s purely coincidental, but do you think Beans can add to this momentum? Can it add to the conversation?

That is absolutely the hope, and the goal, of it being a part of making the world a better place. My hope is that Canadians and Quebecers will see this film and will go out into the world as new allies to indigenous people. It’s clear, society needs to change, but that change is not in the hands of indigenous people, that change is in the hands of Canadians. It’s imperative that people go out there and do what they can.

Every person holds personal power and can make a difference. I truly, truly believe that. It was a very long creative process and it really took a long time to get here, but I feel so strongly that it took that time in order for it to be the film that it needed to be and for it to be coming out in this moment where it can make the most difference. I think if the film came out a few years earlier, I don’t know if Canadians would have been ready for it.

Beans had its world premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and has won several awards already, including Best Feature Film by the Writers Guild of Canada and the Vancouver International Film Festival.

The interview has been edited for clarity.

Photos by Sebastien Raymond.

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