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[TIFF 2020] Interview: Beans writer/director Tracey Deer discusses processing trauma through art, boosting Indigenous voices

Despite being Tracey Deer’s feature debut, Beans has received an extraordinary response following its premiere at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival.

Based on her own experiences as a young Mohawk girl in Quebec, Beans follows a 12-year-old girl (Kiawentiio) whose coming-of-age experience is strained through the real-life 78-day standoff between Mohawk communities and Canadian government forces in 1990. After a local golf course declared their intentions to expand into Mohawk land including forest and sacred burial ground, the Indigenous communities resisted the expansion, leading to three months of tension which spread across the nation.

The film received rave reviews, even landing Tracey Deer the TIFF Emerging Talent Award. It’s a remarkable coming-of-age story supported by archival footage of media depictions of what was dubbed the Oka Crisis, and is eye-opening viewing for all.

Tracey Deer generously took the time to speak with Kyle Milner about the film and her experiences throughout a career spanning over twenty years in the film and televison industries.

Kyle: Congratulations on the film’s selection at TIFF! It’s cool to see such a great lineup. This is my first time covering TIFF – or any major film festival – so it’s wonderful to have access to a much wider variety of film than usual.

You’ve got a wonderful lead with Kiawentiio. She’s a wonderful young actress; so charismatic despite having to go through a lot of very trying things on-screen. What really leapt out to you when it came to casting her, especially in terms of lining up with your own personal experiences?

Tracey: I first met Kiawentiio on the Netflix / CBC drama Anne with an E; I was on their third season as a co-EP and writer. That third season had a very big storyline involving an indigenous family and a 12-year-old Mi’kmaq girl. I was part of the casting search for this young actress, and we did a national casting search in Canada. It was an open call for just indigenous kids across the country to send in self-tape auditions, and we ended up narrowing it down to four young women. They were brought into Toronto to do a more in-depth casting workshop with them, and so that was when I first met with Kiawantiio.

At that point, I was already gearing up for (Beans). We were in the final stages of the script, and I knew that the following summer was when we were hoping to shoot it. So during this casting experience for Anne with an E, my eyes were definitely wide open thinking of casting for Beans.

Within that first day, I started really watching her and watching her process; watching how she listened and took a moment to really internalise and understand what she was being asked to do. And then she was off to the races! I mean, she just landed right where the character needed to be. I thought that the raw talent and understanding that this young woman has for acting was just incredible.

Now, when it came time to actually cast for Beans, learning what I did from Anne with an E, we had a similar process. I did invite Kiawentiio to audition for Beans, but it was definitely a different character. As you saw, she’s in every single scene of the movie, and the scenes can be quite difficult. So we also did a national casting search.

We had young women from across the country, and young men as well, because we have four main characters in the film. We brought in twenty-two kids who were shortlisted from across the country for the same kind of acting workshop we’d done previously, and at the end of that we had a second audition process.

By the end of that, I was absolutely certain that Kiawentiio was meant for this role. But at that point, I did have numerous conversations with her and her parents about the content of the film – how I would shoot it, how I felt very strongly that even though the scenes were dark, I wanted us to have a very good time and a very safe time filming them.

So after a number of talks and making sure she understood what she was getting into, she said she was up for the challenge. We had an extraordinary time, and as you see, she’s phenomenal in the film.

Kyle: Oh, absolutely. As you said, her being an actor who really takes in the moment and the process, it really comes through in her performance. You can see her just taking in the people around her and whether what’s happening is right. Being young is so hard when you don’t know whether the adults around you are doing the responsible thing – you don’t know any better, you’re just a kid!

Tracey: Exactly. And that’s how we learn as children, taking in what’s happening around us. I think that coming-of-age story is that moment when, as a child, our parents are like gods. What they say goes, and I think as you start transitioning out of that, you start to see and realise, “wait a second, maybe all adults are not created equal”. What they say isn’t necessarily the way to go. They’re not as invaluable as you think as a child. I mean, I certainly thought that all adults knew best. And the coming of age is realising that adults don’t necessarily know all that much.

Kyle: We don’t all magically figure life out the second we turn 18.

Tracey: Totally! I’m still trying to figure it out.

Kyle: One aspect of the film I found very interesting was the use of actual archival footage from news broadcasts from the time of the Oka Crisis. Was that something you’d intended to use from the beginning of the production?

Tracey: Yes. It was something we came up with at the script phase. It took us a very long time to write the script; about eight years. And for a long time, we really wrestled with how much we need to explain to the viewer what was going on, because the audience does need a certain amount of context. But Beans is just a 12-year-old girl – I wasn’t aware at 12 years old.

So we definitely wrestled with how we tell the story in a way that makes sure people know what’s going on, but without straying from the perspective of our little girl. And then it came to me that we could use archival footage as our context markers for the audience, and for the actual fiction part of the film, we can stay really grounded in her perspective.

She does hear and see certain things, but they’re not all explained – they’re left for her to interpret why they’re happening and what they mean. They’re left to the audience to interpret as well, but every so often I wanted to make sure people did understand what was going on. I wanted people to know that this really did happen, not just in the film but in real life.

I think it’s a very common reaction when you’re uncomfortable, or negative feelings are stirred up by a film, the natural response is to dismiss it and say, that probably didn’t really happen, or they exaggerated it. And that’s something I didn’t want to happen – I wanted people to know it happened. And you need to sit with those uncomfortable feelings in the hope that those feelings will move you in some way, ideally in a way of action.

So I do hope that those moments ground it and let people know what happened. And also, those media images are what the world saw that summer. That was what the representation of what the events of that summer were about, and it was very biased. So I wanted to tell a story from the inside, and to contrast the two was really important to me.

Kyle: That makes a lot of sense. As someone who is admittedly quite unfamiliar with a lot of Indigenous issues like the Oka Crisis, it was very effective in giving enough context without upsetting the grounded nature of your story.

Tracey: Awesome, thank you. I’m really happy to hear you thought it was successful.

Kyle: Living in New Zealand, we have such a history of shameful historical events and practices involving our own Indigenous peoples. And like you said, people see and hear about these things but don’t necessarily want to believe it because it’s not easy to accept, even when they’re presented with actual video and audio recordings.

There’s a real power to being able to present these stories in a way that connects with audiences and can actually break down that automatic response of “that can’t have happened”, or “that must be exaggerated”.

In terms of telling your own story and other artists telling their stories from Indigenous perspectives, do you feel it’s becoming easier to find a platform in the film industry?

Tracey: So here in Canada, we have the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network. I’ve been in the business now for twenty years; I did ten years in documentary production, I’ve been in television for about ten years, and this is my first feature. The APTN has really been the big supporter behind my voice in my career. I really credit that network with being where I am, because for the longest time there wasn’t a space for our stories.

But I do see that changing. I do see there is a groundswell movement happening. And of course, there’s this global reckoning happening, which I think is just upping it to another notch. But for the past few years, there has been a shift in our mainstream broadcasting world here in Canada, to make space for us. We’ve been insisting on narrative sovereignty in terms of our stories, and making sure indigenous stories come from a place of authenticity. IE, it’s time for white producers, white writers and white directors to back away from our stories.

And so I think this is definitely happening currently in the industry. With Beans being made at the budget level and the level of support that we received is a product of that shift. We had a lot of people come on board to support the film, and enthusiastically support the film, and support my vision. The notes were always just incredibly positive; with a few questions, but very much leaving it in my hands to do what it is I need to do.

So to have that kind of faith in what I have to say as a filmmaker, that’s really good. It’s been a very interesting twenty years, and it’s very encouraging to me to see where we are right now.

Kyle: There’s a similar shift here, to a degree. It’s good to see funding being provided for Maori and Pasifika filmmakers here to get their start and to tell stories from their perspective, and to shift that power from outsiders to the artists themselves.

Given that, to some degree, you were bringing yourself to life on-screen, was it emotionally difficult to actually play these scenarios out for the sake of the film?

Tracey: Incredibly difficult, yes. There are some key scenes that are written directly from my own memories. The most traumatic moment of my life was that scene in which the crowd threw rocks at us. So to recreate that and revisit that trauma was the toughest day of production in my twenty years. We had social workers on set with us that day; we even had a PTSD specialist.

Of course, they were there for my support, but they had been there for the support of everybody who was doing this – our actors who were in the car, and my Mohawk extras who were in the cars in front and behind the lead car. Some of them had lived through it themselves, as well. They were very brave to be there as part of this important recreation, but we were all on-edge. And our emotions were very frayed.

For all those extras, about one hundred white extras, I made it very clear for my booker to make sure they knew exactly what they were being booked for. That’s the last thing I would’ve wanted, for them to just show up on set blindly. Often, extras are not told precisely what’s going to happen, they’re just kind of booked. The last thing I wanted was for them to show up on set and realise they had to recreate such a hateful scene over and over again all day.

So they knew what they were coming into, and I had a really great talk with them at the beginning of the day, and asked them to really go to that dark place. Because if they could give that authentic performance, then in the film, we could maybe do something really great together. They were a wonderful bunch of people.

Between the takes, we were all concentrating on smiles, and laughing and waving and cheering, and really just trying to have a good time amidst the really difficult stuff we had to shoot. I think that we were successful. Once I was alone in my car, I did break down and sob quite a bit before I was able to get home. And still, it’s very difficult to watch the scene even though I’ve now seen it hundreds of times to edit – but it gets me every time.

Kyle: What’s in the works next for you?

Tracey: I have another script I’ve been working on forever; I think that one has been about six years in the making so far. It’s an adaptation of a book called Inner City Girl Like Me, by Sabrina Bernardo. She’s a Canadian author, and that story is about two teenage girls navigating life within an Indigenous gang in Winnipeg.

One of the girls is Indigenous, and the other is an immigrant. It explores their friendship and their quest for belonging, safety and love, and how this Indigenous gang is actually the opposite of all those things that they thought it would be. They thought it would be their place of safety, but in fact, it’s the exact opposite.

I’ve been working on that one forever, and we’re very close to a finished draft that I would feel very good about shooting. So that would be the next baby to be born!

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