When Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer began working on her coming-of-age film Beans, she intended to show Canadian audiences what it was like to be an Indigenous child during the turbulent 78-day conflict known as the Oka Crisis.
Deer was born in Kahnawake, a Mohawk community located on Montreal’s South Shore. When she was 12, violence broke out as members of the nearby Kanesatake reserve sought to protect disputed land that included burial grounds from a golf course expansion project proposed by the town of Oka.
“I wanted people to understand what it was like to be a child, what it was like to be a family during that,” Deer said. “I think so much of the coverage was very much focused on the sensational violence of it all.”
With Quebec police forces, the Canadian Army and the RCMP deployed to Kanesatake, Deer’s Mohawk community joined their peers in the ensuing standoff. The racism and strife that followed was traumatic for Mohawk children and families — a reality that Deer wanted to depict in her new film.
Beans follows a 12-year-old Mohawk girl named Tekehentahkhwa — nicknamed Beans — who is coming of age in the Kahnawake community when the Oka Crisis breaks out.
Amid a desire to have a regular adolescence, and striving for acceptance among the cool, edgy crowd of teens, Beans grows disillusioned by the hatred and violence directed toward her people, evolving from an innocent girl to a despairing young woman hungry for vengeance.
Film inspired by director’s experiences
Deer describes her early childhood as carefree, spent with relatives and cousins in a wonderful and safe neighbourhood, with days spent playing in the woods, riding bikes and mucking around in the mud. When the crisis broke out, that atmosphere didn’t dissipate right away, she said.
“When it first started, my sister and I [thought], this was awesome. We thought it was this really cool adventure,” she said. “I actually thought I was living inside of a movie because this stuff doesn’t happen.”
“Until the conflict and the hate and the violence started to leak into this fun adventure I was having,” Deer said. “And then it completely shattered it.”
WATCH | Tracey Deer discusses how her childhood influenced her new film:
That contrast comes out in the film, too.
After community members ran out of gas for their cars, children used their bikes to act as messengers, riding freely along stretches of empty roads. A scene in the film echoes that liberation, as young characters cycle along a vacant, four-lane highway.
But in one difficult scene, Beans hides on the floor of her mother’s car as she, her mother and her younger sister drive past angry Quebecers throwing rocks at their car, shattering the windows, as law enforcement looks idly on. That scene was a direct extraction from Deer’s own life.
“I was that little girl in the front seat on the floor of the car,” Deer said. “For the longest time, in the scriptwriting phase, I knew that scene and where it was going to go. But for the longest time, it was a blank page. I didn’t want to have to put words to those memories.”
For the filmmaker, the traumatic violence that she and her family experienced 30 years ago is indicative of an attitude that persists in Canadian society today.
And the Oka Crisis serves as an important setting for her coming-of-age film, she said, as Beans is forced to reckon with the world she was born into and her place in it.
“The Oka Crisis is the backdrop, but it’s an important backdrop, right? It represents the animosity that this country has had toward my people for centuries,” she said. “And, yes, it’s about a specific event. But it’s also representative of an attitude that still exists in this country today, 30 years later.”
Cinema challenges Canadians to look inward, director says
Beans is one of the latest additions to a growing wave of Indigenous cinema, with stories told from the perspective of community members.
Blood Quantum, Angry Inuk and The Body Remembers When the World Broke Open have all been released to acclaim in recent years. And Night Raiders, a 2021 film by Cree-Métis filmmaker Danis Goulet, follows a Cree woman in the not-too-distant future as she joins a resistance movement fighting against an oppressive government regime.
Deer said much of her own Indigenous identity was explored through cinema.
“I hope that films like Beans, films like Night Raiders, [expand] people’s perspectives,” Deer said. “Again, it’s the empathy, it’s the compassion. For me, it’s about bridge-building as well; that we’re not so different.”
Deer said her hope is that viewers will put themselves in the shoes of the families who fought in resistance to the Oka expansion project all those years ago — and the Indigenous communities that continue to face these challenges today.
“These types of incidents are still happening across the country,” she said. “So my challenge with the film is: ‘This is what it’s like. Do you care? And if you do, what are you going to do about it?'”