How Tracey Deer faced the trauma of living through the Oka Crisis to bring her film Beans to life
The film was a lifelong passion project for Deer after living through the crisis when she was only 12
In anticipation of Canadian Screen Week and the Canadian Screen Awards, Johanna Schneller, co-host of The Filmmakers, talked to five nominees about what they do, how they do it, and why they love it.
Tracey Deer is nominated for best director and best first feature for Beans, a drama — based on Deer's lived experience — about the 1990 Oka Crisis seen through the eyes of the 12-year-old title character (played by Kiawentiio). Deer, who is Mohawk, grew up on the Kahnawake reserve in Quebec. She began her career in documentary with Mohawk Girls (2005), which she later adapted to a hit half-hour dramedy. We talked about the joy of completing a lifelong passion project, and confronting trauma through art.
Johanna Schneller: The Oka Crisis was a deadly, 78-day standoff between First Nations people who were protecting their land, and Canadian government forces. I can't stop thinking about the scene — which you lived through as a 12-year-old — where carloads of indigenous children, women and elders are crossing the Mercier Bridge. White settlers pelt them with rocks, while the police stand idly by.
Tracey Deer: It took me eight years to write the script, because I had a lot of internal resistance to revisiting those memories, particularly that scene. Whenever I sat down to write it, I would have physical symptoms: I would shake, cry, want to throw up. For a long time it was a blank page in the script, which I avoided.
JS: Yet that summer you vowed to become a filmmaker.
TD: Even back then, I thought, "One day I want to tell this story from a child's point of view." The desire continued to grow.
JS: Why filmmaking?
TD: That year was the first time we could rent commercial VHS players from the video store on the reserve. My father was an iron worker, my mother an executive assistant, just like Beans' mother. We couldn't afford our own VHS player, but every weekend my father would rent one, and a dozen movies. This was so exciting. In the morning, my sister and I watched kid movies; in the afternoon, my whole family watched family films; and in the evening our parents would kick us out and watch more adult movies. After a few weeks, my family was less interested in watching all day, but I continued to.
JS: Any standouts?
TD: I loved adventure movies. Star Wars. I was obsessed with The Goonies — all of Steven Spielberg's work.
JS: Beans is pretty Spielberg-esque — the big story told through the eyes of someone small. Why did you love films so much?
TD: I was painfully shy. I had poor self esteem, which got worse after the Oka Crisis. Movies gave me a place to go, a break from who I was. They also taught me about who I was — what would I feel or do in these situations? Every weekend I'd declare that I was going to be a scientist or a firewoman, based on whatever movie I'd seen. Then one day it hit me that if I made movies, not only would I be able to go on adventures, but maybe stories I put out would inspire a young person to do a wonderful thing. It was like being hit with a thunderbolt.
When I told my family "I want to be a director," I started to cry — I so badly needed them to understand that this time I really meant it. The next weekend I started writing a script. It took me six months to save enough allowance to rent a video camera, which weighed as much as me. Then I did it all again. The next Christmas my parents gave me my own video camera.
JS: What films did you make?
TD: I still have them! Horror movies. Kids being possessed by demons. All my friends were my actors, off in the woods all day pretending to be murdered. We did stunts; we used ketchup for blood. Then we'd do screenings for our parents. There was no editing software, so I had to shoot in sequence and edit in camera.
JS: Why did you keep writing Beans, and then co-writing with Meredith Vuchnich, even though it triggered you?
TD: My ethos is, I want to build bridges. I have this deep desire to be understood. I want more compassion aimed not only at myself as an Indigenous person, but for all of us. That really stems from that summer. How misunderstood and mistreated we were. The destructive effect it had on me. [Her voice chokes with tears.] It was terrible. My adolescence was really dark. I was consumed by rage, anger, sadness. That incident with the rocks is when I learned to hate. I was suicidal when I was 15. I felt so hopeless, like I didn't matter. I don't want kids to feel that, and they do. [She's openly crying now.] Suicide is still an epidemic in indigenous communities. My peers had big dreams, and I watched those dreams go away.
JS: I'm so sorry.
TD: It's okay, I want to talk about it. Somehow I was able to take that rage and use it to motivate me. To prove wrong all those people who threw rocks at us, and all those cops who stood by. I went to prep school, then Dartmouth, chasing approval and success. So I could do what I could to make sure something like that never happens again.
JS: Tell me about shooting the bridge scene.
TD: It was the hardest shoot of my life. On the way to set I was crying, thinking, "Why did you do this?" I was really scared. Once I got to base camp, I could feel the tension. At that moment I put my director hat on, and I put Tracey the survivor to the side to come back to later.
Throughout the whole film, my goal was to not re-traumatize or cause trauma. On this day in particular, that pressure was giant. Our shooting plan was strategic: we separated the shots of the kids in the car from the shots of the violence outside. The crowd was still there, but they weren't yelling racist slurs. All 150 extras were booked with informed consent — they knew they had to be ugly, and they knew why. Many of the Mohawk women in the cars around Beans had lived through the crisis, too. So between shots, the extras were all waving and cheering, supporting us with joy. We had three Indigenous social workers and one PTSD specialist on site, for anyone who needed it.
JS: And for you?
TD: The survival mechanism I learned as a young teen, to compartmentalize my pain, came in handy that day. A few times, I stepped aside for quick cries. A number of extras came up to me afterward, to tell me they were ashamed this had happened in their province, and they were proud to help me tell the story.
JS: This has been percolating in you for 30 years. You poured your whole self into it. Now it's in the world. How does that feel?
TD: It all comes back to that little girl, to that [she chokes up again] really impossible dream she had. So many people told me, "It'll never happen, our people don't do this, it's stupid." So I'm proud of myself. That little girl in me is happy.
JS: You could have made this easier — mediated it through a different character, for example.
TD: When it comes to Indigenous people and events like Oka, Canadians put up a protective wall. I want that wall to come down. This is how I came of age. This is how I understood what it is to be an Indigenous person in this country. I want people to see that, to feel it. We did not make that happen to us. It's not on us to make things better. We're doing every single thing we can. But we cannot change society. Canadians need to do the work to change society. I need them to do that work — for me, my people, and those to come.
JS: Thank you for your candour. I know it was tough.
TD: I can usually cry and talk at the same time [laughs]. I think emotion is beautiful. As a girl I was made to feel defective for it. But I know now it's a superpower.
The Canadian Screen Awards will be held over four nights from May 17-20, 2021.