“I don’t know that I would describe myself as brave back then,” explains Beans director Tracey Deer. “But the character needed to be really brave.”
Beans, this year’s Canadian Screen Award winner for Best Picture, tells a powerful coming-of-age story inspired by Deer’s own awakening during the 1990 Oka Crisis at Kanehsatake. The film sees the 78-day standoff through the eyes of 13-year-old Beans, played by Kiawentiio, as her view of the world transforms as her Mohawk community encounters racism and violence after they erect a blockade at the Mercier Bridge in response to the settler community’s plans to build a golf course on a sacred burial ground. Kiawentiio handles the complex role with remarkable emotional intelligence and agility. Before Beans, the actress broke ground as Ka’kwet on the hit series Anne with an E. Deer also served as a director on the series and saw in Kiawentiio the spirit needed for bringing her own story to screen.
“During the creation process of this film from writing to filming, I was always connecting back to younger Tracey to remember what it like was to be that age,” explains Deer. “What was it like coming of age? How did it make me feel? There were certain qualities that I wanted to find in an actress.” Deer admits there were some challenges to casting a variation of her younger self—Beans’ Mohawk name, Tekahentakwa, is Deer’s middle name—but explains that looking past an actor’s limited experience allows a filmmaker to see traits they share with the character. “When you’re casting, it’s good to try to pair the character with some of the actor’s natural qualities. Kiawentiio is an artist through and through. She’s sensitive, thoughtful and very brave.”
Harnessing Kiawentiio’s Bravery
Deer says that she saw Kiawentiio’s bravery through her responsiveness to direction and her fearlessness while performing. “I was incredibly nervous through the casting process because these are young people that are going to be coming to tell a really difficult story,” explains Deer, relating Beans’ bravery to her own fears witnessing the standoff at age 12. “I was worried about whether she or any young person was going to be able to take this on. Over and over and over again, Kiawentiio convinced me that she was up for it. She had her parents’ resounding support and we went on this journey together.”
Beans’ bravery sees a personal evolution as the standoff at Kanehsatake mirrors her inner battle. Confrontations with the cool kids on the reserve make her self-conscious about the childishness of her appearance and behaviour. Beans learns what it means to be tough, and the responsibility that toughness brings. She undergoes a loss of innocence just as the images from Kanehsatake shatter Canada’s rosy image.
Despite the actors’ distance from the event, Deer says that she didn’t have to explain the story of the Oka Crisis to Kiawentiio or Beans’ other young performers. “As Indigenous people, as Indigenous young people, this is definitely a watershed moment in our history,” observes Deer. “They were all very aware of the Oka Crisis. They felt the weight of responsibility of taking on this story., but also very proud to be bringing it to the public.”
A Multi-generational Approach
However, knowing the volatile nature of the event that Deer would convey, including moments in which the white Quebecois residents spit on the Mohawk and threw rocks at them—violence that Deer herself encountered—some scenes required more mental preparation for shoots that recreated the scenes, like the centerpiece sequences amid the blockades at the Mercier Bridge.
“They were scared of certain scenes and nervous,” Deer says of the young actors. “It was a process of talking through how we would film them and coming up with a shooting plan that not only made them comfortable, but also made their parents comfortable.”
The preparation shows in the emotional arc that Kiawentiio creates for Beans as she learns to hold her ground, but also matures in her awareness of what it means to be an Indigenous person in Canada. The film also draws a strong performance from young (Violah Beauvais as Beans’ kid sister Ruby. The sisters are inseparable as Beans draws from the wisdom of their mother, Lily (Rainbow Dickerson), and learns that true strength means protecting those around you.
Deer admits that it wasn’t much of a leap creating a character inspired by her own experience. Representing her community through film has been inherent through her work to date. Beans is Deer’s first dramatic feature after a decade directing documentaries, including 2005’s Mohawk Girls, which inspired the hit dramatic television series that ran for four seasons. “When you’re telling the story about your own people, you certainly feel a tremendous responsibility,” observes Deer. “I take it very seriously and it keeps me up at night, but I’m proud to be putting out these stories. As a young person growing up I never saw myself reflected on the small screen or the big screen. But in the span of 20 years, we have now changed what the landscape looks like in this country. Our kids now can see themselves in their stories reflected back at them.”
The Legacy of Alanis Obomsawin
The Oka Crisis also represents a major turning point in Canadian history for the role it played in shaping Indigenous self-representation on screen. The saga was previously chronicled in Alanis Obomsawin’s 1993 landmark documentary Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which many critics and audiences consider one of the most significant films produced in this country. Obomsawin’s influence is unmistakable in Beans. Deer shares the master’s hand for using films to reveal truths that some audiences would rather avoid.
The director admits that it was intimidating following in the footsteps of Kanehsatake, but she welcomed the challenge. “Alanis’s was the first of all of us,” notes Deer. “She’s somebody I absolutely look up to and her work is incredible, especially that film in particular. I saw Kanehsatake when I was in university and it was the first time I saw our stories presented from our point of view.”
Deer, who studied film at Dartmouth, says the experience reframed how she perceived her potential to tell Indigenous stories. “I thought would go out into the world and make the next Indiana Jones movie and blow shit up and that it was going to be awesome, but to tell stories that come directly from my heart, it was when I saw Alanis’s film that the idea started formulating.” Like Obomsawin, Deer is blowing shit up in ways other than Steven Spielberg and George Lucas might. But confronting the past brings its own explosive power. “It’s a watershed and it belongs to so many of us,” says Deer.
Archive and Deer’s Documentary Roots
The legacy of Kanehsatake echoes throughout the archival footage that Deer intersperses throughout the film. The power of the verité-style news images speaks to Deer’s experience as a documentary filmmaker. The boldness of the cutting deftly makes the past feel immediately present.
On the other hand, the archives contextualise the situation in lieu of excessive exposition. “It doesn’t explain everything it’s not meant to,” notes Deer. “This is not a movie about the Oka crisis. It’s a coming of age story of a young Indigenous girl during an uprising.” The director says that playing with the archives helped balance the context and the story while shaping the film.
Deer adds the archival elements helped assert the authenticity of the event and root Beans in reality. The events of Kanehsatake have obvious overtones to the Wet’suwet’en blockades and protests that rippled nationwide last year, as well as the overdue reckoning with Canada’s history of residential schools. Beans’ story is just one of many that asks celebrates the strong Indigenous spirit that grew during events like the Oka Crisis, but it also asks the film’s wider audience to recognize their role in this awakening.
“Especially being an Indigenous filmmaker, I didn’t want white audience members to say, ‘She’s pushing it to make us look bad,’” says Deer. The archival footages shows the grotesque reactions of the Quebeckers that Beans encounters in the drama. “By including the archival moments, it grounds the film in truth. But it also doesn’t let people off the hook. It was that ugly.”
While the conversation confronts the ugliness of the past, Beans offers hope for the future in the young girl’s growth over the course of the film. The guiding light for Beans is her mother. Lily is a force. Her strength inspires Beans to rise above the challenges that she encounters.
“The whole family is inspired by and built around my actual family,” explains Deer. “My mother was not pregnant, so I don’t have a baby brother. It’s just me and my sister, but my mother is a formidable force. She’s always been my role model. She always told me that anything is possible and don’t let anyone stand in my way. Dream big and go for it. It was so important for me to hear that over and over and over again from my.”
Beans reflects this sentiment as Lily encourages Beans to pursue education at a private school off the reserve. The other teens call it the “white school” and Beans worries that enrolling equals a rejection of her Indigenous identity. By the end, she proudly emphasizes her right to stand in the room as a Mohawk.
Through Lily, Beans, and the aunties who help the family along the way, Deer pays tribute to the women of the Mohawk community. “I was raised by these women. I am the filmmaker I am, I am the leader I am, I am the speaker I am, I am the impassioned advocate that I am—I am all of these because of these incredible women who raised me,” says Deer. “That was everything I wanted to put into the mother character and really honour and celebrate them.”