There’s a pause on the other end of the line. Mohawk director Tracey Deer is silently — in between audible sobs — trying to collect herself in order to finish answering my question. The longtime TV writer and producer (Mohawk Girls, Anne With An E) just won the TIFF Emerging Talent Award at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival and should be basking in glowing reviews for her first feature film, Beans, a harrowing, necessary coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the 1990 Oka Crisis in Quebec. Deer lived through the brutal government standoff with two Mohawk communities protesting the expansion of a golf course on their sacred land, and wrote many of her own experiences into the character of Tekehentahkhwa (everyone calls her “Beans”), a 12-year-old girl whose carefree childhood is violently interrupted by the reality of anti-Indigenous racism and injustice.
Given the staggering film’s heavy subject matter, it’s understandable that Deer gets emotional speaking about it. But it’s the combination of revisiting her own traumatic experiences through Beans, the personal accolades that Deer is receiving during TIFF, and the fact that we’re still, you know, in a pandemic, that has the filmmaker feeling overwhelmed and “bittersweet.” Her dreams are coming true, but not in the ways she expected.
“I've wanted to be a filmmaker ever since I was 12 years old,” she tells me from her home just outside of Montreal. “I also lived through the Oka Crisis when I was 12 years old. Both the dream to be a filmmaker and the idea to one day tell [this story] began 30 years ago.” she says. “Here I am. I finally made that film. And I'm in my kitchen, in my moccasins, talking to you and doing Zooms and experiencing the premiere from my living room.” Deer knows her mission for this film is bigger than getting to walk a red carpet, so her gratitude outweighs her disappointment, she tells me.
Our phone call, which left us both in tears, happens mere hours before Deer delivered a moving speech while collecting her award, presented to her by Ava DuVernay at the festival’s virtual awards gala, and she seems to be seesawing between disbelief and awe over it all. Here, she tells me about the pain of reliving history to tell this story, casting Beans’ enigmatic lead actress, and how she’s handling all the emotions.
Refinery29: This semi-autobiographical film is a coming-of-age story with a horrific backdrop. Beans loses her innocence quickly. Is that what you were trying to convey — that someone like her doesn't get to just have a carefree childhood?
Tracey Deer: Absolutely. The lessons that she learned/I learned/all of our Indigenous kids are learning, is that the world is not safe for them, that their dreams don't matter, their voices don't matter. When I was a kid growing up, it was very idyllic. It was filled with games and laughter and hopes and dreams. And like any kid, there was the possibility of me being an astronaut or me going to Hollywood — all of these dreams were very real until they weren't. Until you start to come of age and realize there are different rules for different people. That chips away at your hope, it chips at your self-worth. The possibilities become smaller and smaller. It's just devastating. For me, it was the Oka Crisis, which resulted in a 78-day armed standoff that ultimately involved the Canadian army laying siege to my community, and our sister Mohawk community. It was that summer. And it was a very, very violent, very big dramatic way to learn those lessons. But those lessons are still happening every day to all our kids. I really do hope people understand that the society that resulted from that event is the society we still live in, and our kids are suffering.
Even though the movie is not set in the present day, there are so many things that hit me, unfortunately, as being timeless. Can you speak to that?
TD: I do think that the film has something to say for the extraordinary time that we are living in. And I made the film to make a difference, to try to change the world. It's the big goal. As soon as you said it strikes you that this film and these stories are timeless, I immediately thought, Oh God, I hope the film isn't timeless. I hope that 30 years from now, somebody might watch the film and go, "Oh wow, those were troubled times. But we have come so far from that time."
As an Indigenous person, I can say that there has been some progress in the last 30 years, but we still have a very long way to go. When I was making this film last year, I knew the themes were still very, very current. And it isn't just something Indigenous people are carrying. This is what the Black community is carrying, and people of color are carrying. It's so heartbreaking. It makes me so sad that this film set 30 years ago is actually still so current.
I can imagine that there was a lot of trauma that you had to relive to make this. Talk to me about how difficult that was.
TD: Every single phase of revisiting the most traumatic moment of my life has been difficult. The script took around eight years and there were big chunks of the script that I just had placeholder [text] in for the longest time, because I didn't even want to put words to the event. To be clear, I didn't live through every single one of the events [in the film]. One specific scene that I did live through was when the angry [racist] mob throws stones at the cars [of Mohawk people crossing the Mercier Bridge]. Going to set that day, I thought, what was I thinking? I was really scared. I did not want anyone traumatized in the act of creation. The big challenge was, how do I pull this off and keep everyone safe, including myself? We had three Indigenous social workers with us that day. We had a PTSD specialist with us that day. We have an acting coach for the kids who was there specifically to help them emotionally prepare for the scenes.
I had a great talk with [the actors and extras] at the beginning of the day. I shared with them what this scene meant to me personally, and what a difficult day it would be for me, and for all of them, and that there were resources for them. I asked if they could go to an ugly place for me in those few moments whenever we were rolling, but then let it go and smile and keep the energy up for everybody, that would mean the world to me. And I think we were successful in getting through it in a positive way. But at the end of the day, I did go back to my car and I sobbed.
Kiawentiio, the young actress who plays Beans, is a revelation. Tell me how you found this exceptional talent for the film and how you prepared her for the role.
TD: I met Kiawentiio when she was cast in a supporting role in the Netflix TV show, Anne with an E. I was a co-executive producer and writer on that season. I was able to watch her just blossom on that set and learn so much. But that role was definitely smaller than carrying a film with a lot of really difficult themes. Through the audition process, it was super clear to me that Kiawentiio was Beans. I engaged in a number of conversations with her parents and her, just so that they really understood what they would be getting into and what it would entail. And that once the train started, there was no getting off the train. I really wanted them to make sure they knew what was going to happen on the train.
She said she was up for the challenge and her parents were supportive so off we went. My God, how she grew every single day as an actress. The only way we got the film we did is because of her talent. I'm so grateful to this young woman. She's absolutely incredible.
You're getting so many incredible reviews. You won the Emerging Talent Award at TIFF. But we're in a time that is very heavy and this film is very heavy. How are you grappling with all of those duelling emotions?
Honestly, that's the stuff I'm having a hard … [the line goes quiet as Deer cries]
It's okay. Take your time.
TD: I keep saying, is this really happening? Am I awake? Getting into TIFF was just so huge and so amazing. And then the award. I couldn't believe it, with all of the incredible talents in the festival this year. For me to be chosen was just such an honor. Then it was just so nerve-wracking to see how the film would be received and if it can have the impact that we so desperately want it to have. In the last two days, to see all of these reviews come out and to know that it's touching people, it's shaking people. This has been such a singular mission since I was 12. To now be in this moment where every single piece of the dream is manifesting in such a massive way, I'm having trouble believing it and processing it.
I grew up feeling very invisible and very voiceless and very unimportant. And now I have this platform and my voice is being praised and elevated. It's very overwhelming. It's very exciting. It's very fulfilling. It's also difficult because there's so many that don't get to have their dreams come true and have had their dreams squashed. I don't want to be one of few. I want to be one of many.
As a Black woman, I felt similar to you growing up, specifically when it comes to not feeling like you had a voice. So, I just want to say thank you. Because I know that this story and your presence is going to make it easier for the next generation of little girls like yourself and like Beans. Lastly, could you sum up what you hope the lasting legacy of this film will be?
TD: I hope that people realize those little girls in that movie — all of those kids in the film — need better from us. This intolerance and racism and hatred and anger, it's destroying lives before they even start. We all need to do everything we possibly can to combat it and create a new narrative for Indigenous kids and Indigenous communities.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.