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Director Tracey Deer on set of Beans. Inspired by true events, Beans is about a Mohawk girl on the cusp of adolescence who must grow up fast and become her own kind of warrior during the armed stand-off known as the 1990 Oka Crisis.Sebastien Raymond/Courtesy of EMAFilms / Mongrel Media

Last September, Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer stepped onstage to make an introduction at the TIFF Bell Lightbox for the premiere of her first narrative feature, Beans. In the midst of the pandemic, TIFF had capped indoor screenings to 50 patrons – half of whom Deer estimated were her own family and crew members. Looking out at the rows of empty seats, where a sold out audience would normally be, she knew she had to make the best of it.

“When I came out onstage and saw no one, I had to mentally prepare,” says Deer during an emotional half-hour Zoom call the other week. “All I could say was, ‘Wow, you guys are VIPs! Look at how select we are!’”

Nearly a year later, Beans – Deer’s spiky, autobiographical coming-of-age feature about a 12-year-old Mohawk girl growing up on the Kanehsatà:ke reserve during the summer of the 1990 Oka Crisis – is the most celebrated Canadian film of the season.

In addition to festival acclaim, it received the Canadian Screen Award for Best Picture, was the second runner-up for the TIFF People’s Choice Award, and is one of few Canadian films to receive a national theatrical release this summer. Critics use phrases like “empathy bomb” and “an unmitigated triumph” to describe the way Deer grounds a devastating period in Canadian history in a familiar adolescent drama narrative – material that was previously the domain of nonfiction film, such as Alanis Obomsawin’s formidable 1993 documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance.

Like her contemporaries Danis Goulet and Elle-Maija Tailfeathers, Deer’s success indicates that the Indigenous Cinematic Renaissance will be led by women, as Beans earned Deer a spot on Variety’s “10 Screenwriters to Watch” list and, recently, a signing with CAA. While Ava DuVernay may have presented Deer with TIFF’s “Emerging Talent Award” at the TIFF Tribute Awards last year, the filmmaker been in the industry since the early aughts, beginning in documentary and creating the trailblazing TV series Mohawk Girls, which first aired on the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network in 2010 (CBC started airing the show in 2020).

Deer is one of several women leading the Indigenous Cinematic Renaissance.Dory Chamoun/Courtesy of Mongrel Media

“APTN has been there right from the beginning, saying, ‘We believe in you,’ but it took me eight years to figure out how to say everything I wanted,” recounts Deer, who mined her own experience growing up during the Oka Crisis, in which the Indigenous community spent 78 days in a violent land dispute against white Quebecois civilians and police. As the violence around her intensifies, Beans’ title character (played by the young actress Kiawentiio) learns to experiment with alcohol, self-harm, crop-tops and a flirtation with older boys. Most poignantly, she taps into her own sense of injustice and rage, inciting violence upon police and younger white children. In 2021, as Canada’s long history of Indigenous injustice is being reckoned with, Beans is a heroine to cheer for.

The film’s most potent sequence is a scene in which Beans, her younger sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais), and mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) are pelted with rocks as they drive across the Mercier Bridge. Deer unrelentingly pans over the giddy faces of their white assaulters, as if she is committing them to memory. For many years, this scene was a blank page in the script, as she worked with co-writer Meredith Vuchnich to process the encounter and depict it on screen.

“When the rocks were thrown at us, I pinpoint that as the moment I learned to hate,” recounts Deer. “I wanted nothing more than to get out of that car, attack those people, and rip their eyes out.”

Filming became a three-fold challenge of not doing harm to herself, the integrity of her film, or to the young adults she was directing.

“Tracey Deer, the survivor, had to take a back seat so that Tracey Deer, the director, could be prioritized,” says the filmmaker. “There were many days driving to the set where I was a bit of a mess, but you park the car, start walking into base camp, and say, ‘You have a job to do. We are gonna have to come back to all these feelings later.’”

Editing was equally difficult, as Deer cut out a dozen scenes. During a rough cut showing in Toronto, Deer sat in a test screening amongst her Indigenous peers, fearing she had gotten it all wrong. She’s kept up at night by the heavy responsibility to tell the truth without adding to harm and negativity.

Director Tracey Deer, right, directs Kiawentiio, middle, and Violah Beavais, left, on the set of Beans.Sebastien Raymond/Courtesy of EMAFilms / Mongrel Media

“My fear is always lingering and trying to get in,” says Deer, now breaking into tears. “With every single thing I make, there is an incredible responsibility of representation. I know I’m only one Indigenous person – we all are – but I want to get it right.”

Recently, Deer finally walked back into the theatre to watch her film again: this time, it was at a Cineplex in the suburbs of Montreal. While her audience was was even smaller than her premiere – Deer’s group of girlfriends, a couple, and two teenage boys – Deer was grateful to see Beans back on the big screen.

“[I was] walking down that long aisle past A Quiet Place II and there it is, it’s Beans, and my poster is on the door, I literally went back to my 12-year-old self, going ‘Oh my god! Look!” she recounts. “As the credits came up, my friends turned around and said ‘It’s her! She’s the director!’ and everyone clapped for me. One woman was crying and thanking me for the film, she wanted her picture with me. My filmmaker soul was lapping it up.”

The surreal timing of her first film’s release has made Deer reflective. She’s excited to be TIFF’s Emerging Artist, even though she’s already spent two decades in the industry trying to break out. She just hopes Canadians are receptive to her message.

“We are in a year of reckoning. I think this is the moment where the film can be most helpful,” says Deer. “Canadians are, all of a sudden, more open and more willing than ever to hear us. I’m so grateful that the film is able to come out at a moment where it can hopefully be a part of change.”

Beans opens July 23 in Toronto and Vancouver cinemas, with additional cities throughout summer.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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