New film confronts the Oka Crisis through the eyes of a 12-year-old girl
Beans, which just premiered at TIFF, is partly based on the childhood experience of filmmaker Tracey Deer
When she was just 12 years old, filmmaker Tracey Deer decided she would make a film about the Oka Crisis — one that told the story from the perspective of an Indigenous child.
The armed standoff, which began 30 years ago this July, was between Mohawk protesters and police in Quebec and went on for 78 days.
At issue was the town of Oka, Que., which wanted to expand its golf course from nine holes to 18, and build a new condo development. Both would encroach on Mohawk territory, including areas with acres of trees and a burial ground.
WATCH | Tracey Deer's full interview with q host Tom Power:
The protesters, most of them from the Kanesatake and Kahnawà:ke reserves, faced racist taunts and intimidation from Oka residents, and truckers refused to bring in food. There were barricades, army tanks and tear gas, and a police officer was killed.
But Deer wasn't only interested in what people experienced at Oka: she lived much of it first-hand.
One of her most searing childhood memories is of being in the backseat of her mother's car, driving past locals who pelted them with rocks — and that terrifying moment is now a scene in Beans, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this week.
"That one was directly from the way I lived it. And I really wanted people to experience it the way the way I did. It's shot that way as well," says Deer in an interview with q host Tom Power.
"Even back then, I thought, 'This needs to be a film, and it needs to be a film to walk through a child's point of view, because the way I lived it is so different than the way Mohawk adults lived it — but also the way Canadians lived it."
'I was ripped to shreds'
The film was also in part inspired by Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, the acclaimed 1993 documentary by Alanis Obomsawin that chronicles the events of the crisis, including Rocks at Whiskey Trench, the violent conflict that Deer had experienced firsthand.
The first time Deer watched Obomsawin's doc, she was sitting in a classroom at Dartmouth College.
"I was ripped to shreds. The Oka Crisis was something I compartmentalized and tucked away as a survival mechanism to get through my adolescence — and I barely did," says Deer.
"Once Rocks at Whiskey Trench showed up on the screen, I ended up having to leave the classroom and broke down in sobs in the hallway. And the teacher came out confused what was going on," she says.
"So it had a profound impact on me — and also that Alanis Obomsawin was there and made sure that our side of the story was told in that way was just so inspiring to me."
The film tells the coming-of-age story of Tekehentahkhwa (Kiawentiio), a Mohawk girl who goes by her nickname Beans, and her little sister and sidekick Ruby (Violah Beauvais), who live on the Kahnawà:ke reserve.
Her father Kania'tariio, played by Joel Montgrand, worries her sensitivity is a weakness, and her mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) has great aspirations for her.
But discussion of Beans's future gets pushed aside when the Oka Crisis unfolds, and she is forced to confront anti-Indigenous racism and violence — and learn how her actions affect those she holds most dear.
Deer says the script took eight years to write, as she carefully balanced Beans' coming-of-age tale with real documentary footage so viewers can't dismiss the events as fiction.
'It was hard to keep it tucked away'
The film was partly shot in and around Kahnawà:ke, but Deer shot the more violent scenes 45 minutes away, because she didn't want to "rip the scab off a wound" that her community and neighbouring communities had worked three decades to repair.
Deer says they also had Indigenous social workers and a post-traumatic stress specialist on set, in case any of the actors or crew needed support before or after re-enacting difficult events.
For Deer, the day they shot the Rocks at Whiskey Trench scene was especially challenging. A rig was pulling the car with her fictional family inside when the director realized she hadn't cued them to roll up the windows, and they were about to be pelted with rocks.
She yelled "Stop the car" but the rig driver didn't hear, and the car kept moving toward the crowd of extras. Even though the rocks weren't real, the moment triggered something in Deer.
"I just really started yelling, 'Stop the car! Stop the car! Stop the car!' And finally, the car did stop. And everyone in the car was looking at me and they were like, 'Tracey are you OK?'" remembers Deer.
"So there were moments like that where it was hard. It was hard to keep it tucked away," says Deer, who describes that day as the most difficult of her life, then pauses.
"Well, it was the second hardest day. The hardest day was when I lived it. The second hardest day was to recreate it."
Already the film is receiving widespread acclaim; but more than anything, Deer hopes Beans takes viewers past the Oka headlines and into the human side of the experience.
"It is racism, indifference, injustice. It is so destructive to a person's self-worth, to a person's sense of safety — and I can attest to this personally. And I really think we need to do better," says Deer.
"So I chose to tell the story through a child really hoping to inspire people to go out into the world within the power they hold — and we all hold power — to do better, to make the world a better place for our Indigenous kids because they need help," she says.
"They need their dreams. And all of that gets chipped away by the society we live in today."
Written by Jennifer Van Evra. Produced by Kaitlyn Swan.