Tracey Deer on Beans: “There is still so much work to be done”

The filmmaker is trying to reshape Canadians’ understanding of the country’s Indigenous community. Adam Solomons talks to the TIFF prize-winner about her debut narrative feature

At a point early on in Beans, a coming-of-age drama about the titular 12-year-old caught up in a violent ethnic conflict, real-life archive footage shows a protestor holding a sign with jarring prescience. The sign reads: “Who will protect the rights of white people?”

Filmmaker Tracey Deer insists that, far form an intentional glance toward the events of today, the shot was added before 2020’s most recent upheaval. It is, in fact, a perfect representation of many Canadians’ feelings during the Oka Crisis of 1990, a 78-day war of attrition between Canadian authorities and the Mohawk people triggered by the planned expansion of a Quebec golf course on sacred land. “The world is what changed during post-production,” Deer explained, speaking from her home. “Not the film. It’s exactly the film I set out to make.”

Deer describes the bittersweet feeling of being vindicated by the ignorant responses of many white people to calls for racial equality, but at the same time depressed that so little has changed. “That pushback and that bitterness and that violence has been a part of our narrative for centuries. It’s not new. What’s new is that the world is paying attention.”

It certainly is, both to a new wave of civil disobedience and a landmark film that depicts it. Beans came third place for the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Deer took home the coveted Emerging Talent prize, too. (Chloe Zhao’s Nomadland picked up first place, while Regina King's One Night in Miami earned first runner-up). With TIFF’s flagship prize tending to go traditional Oscar players such as Green Book and Jojo Rabbit, I asked whether Deer thinks that the success of Beans might herald more adventurous taste among TIFF-goers.

“I don’t want to pigeonhole my film as the Canadian story, but it is very much a major historical moment in our country’s history,” she explained. “And I do think we are in the midst of a reckoning that audiences are wanting to engage with.”

Even still, Deer is pragmatic when it comes to what Canadians have learned from Oka. She said: “I do think that there’s been a lot of movement in the last 30 years. That keeps me optimistic – I must be, because that is how I can face every single day. But there is still so much work to be done.”

Deer’s film illustrates that unhappy calculation with an ensemble narrative that makes for an affecting and thoroughly watchable experience. Kiawentiio’s performance in the lead role is the inevitable highlight and the foundation for everything else. Even her cutesy nickname is a symbol of her effort to fit in.

That mission is especially personal for Deer, who was a child during the crisis and decided well over a decade ago to make Beans about her experience. What is perhaps even more poignant, however, is Deer’s reflection on Lily, the indefatigable mother whose iron will is tested to the limit by mob violence, police brutality and social neglect. “A lot of what Beans’ mum goes through is pulled from my own feelings now that I’m a woman – now that I’m an Indigenous woman. How do you withstand all that and remain?”

In case it wasn’t already clear, the Oka Crisis was never about the golf course. Rather, it became an unpleasant delineation of the price Canada was willing to put on the livelihoods of its sizeable Indigenous community. That Beans must undergo an unwanted coming-of-age in 78 chaotic days robs her of her innocence, a feeling Deer wrote directly from. “I went into the Oka Crisis an imaginative, sensitive, carefree kid. I had cousins and aunties on every corner. The Oka Crisis shattered all that for me. I learned how to hate that summer.”

Yet even greater than the raw anger still generated when thoughts of Oka flash by, Deer’s primary feeling seems to be pride in a film that was a genuine long shot. TIFF isn’t quite on the other side of the world, but it is the goal for filmmakers like Deer. “I have gone to professional development programmes with the festival and attended numerous times,” she said. “The dream was always that one day I will return and premiere this film at TIFF.  So, when we got in, it was a dream realised. But I did not get to experience all of that. All of that wonderful, artistic, creative circus that TIFF is was very strange this year.”

Deer had to read glowing responses to the film and take part in panels from her home, where she is also doing this interview. The missed opportunity to have such an overtly Indigenous film premiere at TIFF stung too, she commented.

Nevertheless, Deer very much intends to be back. The prospect of a long-awaited pomp and circumstance is a treat for a filmmaker whose work is, thankfully, anything but. “This just leaves me with future goals, which is great because I love a challenge,” she explained. “I still have things I must accomplish.”

Beans was screened as part of the Toronto International Film Festival 2020. A UK release date is yet to be announced.

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