As Tracey Deer explains, inspiration often shows up in the strangest places. It was 10 years ago that she was working on a film shoot in the middle of a typically cold, miserable Montreal winter when the truck she and a technician were in broke down. That left them stranded on a rural road for more than nine hours.
“I was sitting there, eager to continue working but unable to,” she recalls. “My mind began to wander, and I thought about all the craziness in my life. Then a twentysomething Mohawk girl, there were so many things happening to me, both personally and professionally, and to my entire circle of friends. I thought it would make a fantastic TV series.”
Now 35, Deer finds herself – after a long, circuitous route that’s typical of the medium – wrapping the first season of the cable series Mohawk Girls, seven 30-minute episodes that will air on APTN and Omni next year. She describes her aspirations for the show as both simple and ambitious. “I want to tell honest stories about the lives of young aboriginal women,” she says, adding: “I see this as the Sex and the City for the native set.”
Mohawk Girls tells the stories of a number of young, ambitious women who live on a reserve near Montreal. Deer has her ensemble dealing with the pressure to procreate, with living part of their lives on the reserve and part in the city, and with interracial romance. “Those are all huge questions for us,” says Deer. “I’m only one Mohawk girl, but I’m surrounded by many Mohawk girls. And each and every one of these stories is inspired by something real.”
Deer says many of the issues surrounding Mohawk youth involve identity. “There is a lot of pressure to remain on the reserve, but I’m not sure that’s for everyone,” she says. “I grew up that way, but I’m not sure I advocate it. I think the trick is to maintain your identity as a native in a much bigger world. That’s a complex thing, and it’s something all minority cultures face. We don’t want to live in a bubble.
“Mohawk women often feel compelled to marry and procreate only with Mohawk men,” the director says, adding: “That’s why the idea of having one of my characters dating a white guy who’s off the reserve made for an important storyline. How does this go over in the community? How does the character deal with the fallout?”
That Mohawk Girls draws on real-life inspiration is no surprise, given that Deer began as a documentary filmmaker; she previously made Mohawk Girls (2005) and the Gemini-Award-winning Club Native (2008).
“The problem with that was I got pegged as a documentary filmmaker,” she says. “Before they give you funding for dramatic work, they want to see that you can do it. So I made a short film, Escape Hatch, five years ago, to show what I could do in drama.”
And she acknowledges that the nod to Sex and the City might seem odd, given the obvious differences between life on the reserve and the Manhattan fashion milieu. But she’s quick to add that the comparison is not that crazy. “When I first saw Sex and the City, I had never lived in New York, and I had never spent $500 on a pair of shoes,” Deer says. “But I loved the show and related to it. When I saw the actors bringing my ideas to life on the set of Mohawk Girls, I had both hands clasped over my mouth. It was so exciting.”
Deer says it helps that “just as we were finishing up our scripts, the Idle No More movement began. I think, at this moment, Canadians are much more open to hearing, listening and connecting with us. I hope this show adds to the momentum.”