Beans Tracey Deer Kahnawake Indigenous Kiawentiio

Tracey Deer on her new film Beans, an Indigenous coming of age story

“My coming of age was through the backdrop of the Oka Crisis. That environment, that animosity, that lack of safety is still incredibly current across the board.”

Beans, directed by Tracey Deer, is named after its protagonist, a 12-year-old Mohawk girl from Kahnawake. Beans (played by Kiawentiio) lives with her parents (Rainbow Dickerson and Joel Montgrand) and little sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais). Beans is a good student, with her mind set on attending an exclusive private school populated, predictably, mainly by white people. Beans is at that crossroads in her life where she’s not quite a teenager (she still plays with her little sister constantly) but not quite a kid anymore. What precipitates things is the Oka Crisis on the other side of the island of Montreal, in which the community of Oka had approved the expansion of their golf course over sacred Mohawk land. Mohawks on the South Shore (including Beans’s father) set up a blockade on the bridge in solidarity and to prevent further raids from the SQ, prompting outrage and racist outbursts from the white community in Châteauguay.

Deer’s film is told from the perspective of a 12-year-old who doesn’t quite grasp the enormity of the events surrounding her. In that sense, Beans is less a historical document than a snapshot from a very specific perspective — but one that feels very personal for Deer, who grew up in Kahnawake and was 12 years old in 1990.

Beans Tracey Deer Kahnawake Indigenous Kiawentiio
Kiawentiio and Rainbow Dickerson in Beans, directed by Tracey Deer

“I didn’t want to make a movie about the Oka Crisis,” says Deer. “I wanted to make a story about a little Indigenous girl coming of age as an Indigenous person in this country and how difficult and really brutal that coming of age can be. Certainly, that’s what my experience was. My coming of age was through the backdrop of the Oka Crisis, and the Oka Crisis gives us a situation where everything is very heightened. That environment, that animosity, that lack of safety, that is still incredibly current across the board. It was never going to be a story about Oka — it was always going to be about a little girl with Oka in the backdrop. They feed into each other.”

Beans relies immensely on the performances of the young people at its core. The film is not just telling Beans’s story, there’s essentially nothing in here that isn’t her direct experience. But casting such a specific role came with challenges.

Tracey Deer Indigenous Beans Kahnawake Kiawentiio
Tracey Deer on the set of Beans

“It was definitely a process,” says Deer. “We did have an open casting call for children across the country, because the typical casting process in which a casting director puts out a casting call to all the agents and the agents get their clients to submit wasn’t going to work. There aren’t a ton of Indigenous kids in that traditional system that have already been discovered. We got a ton of submissions from all of these incredibly talented kids. We narrowed it down to five kids per role and we flew them down to Toronto for an acting workshop at the Canadian Film Centre. That was like an acting 101 workshop; it wasn’t two days of Beans. It was for learning about acting, having fun with each other.

“I was there watching them as they went through these two days to see how open they were, to see how willing they would be to be vulnerable. It was incredible to watch these 20 kids blossom as actors over these two days. At the end of the two days, we did another round of auditions in which I was able to mix and match the actors. It was after that weekend that we were able to find three of our roles, but then Violah Beauvais was found much later. It’s her first role, so she’s a complete discovery. Kiawentiio and all of the other young actors had some experience, but Violah, this was her first time. She’s from Kahnawake herself, and I do think it was meant to be that way. I’m so pleased that there’s a young person from my community as well.”

Beans Tracey Deer Kahnawake Indigenous Kiawentiio
Violah Beauvais and Kiawentiio

All of Beans is affecting, but one particularly brutal scene happens as Beans, her mother and sister drive down a road bordered on each side by white people who are pelting them with rocks. This scene is immersive and raw and frankly quite hard to sit through, which I imagine is tenfold when you’ve lived it yourself.

“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” says Deer. “But cathartic, healing — it was definitely those things. As a young girl, I felt very powerless during that summer, and for most of my coming of age, in fact. Powerless, voiceless, invisible… I felt like I didn’t matter. When cops allow adults to throw rocks at you, as a child, the only way I was able to interpret it was that I didn’t matter. So now, 30 years later, being at the helm of sharing this story with the world, it’s the very opposite of powerless. I have a voice that I was able to put out there and make sure that what I experienced and what countless other people experienced is not forgotten. I wanted people to bear witness to it and understand what it is to be Indigenous in this country. It’s so complicated. It’s difficult in this country. In all of my work, I hope to build bridges and inspire compassion. I want allies and to build allyship; I want people to leave the film thinking, ‘Wow, I can’t believe this happened in this country. What can I do to make things better for our indigenous brothers and sisters in this country?’” ■

Beans, starring Kiawentiio, directed by Tracey Deer

Beans is in Montreal theatres now. This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Cult MTL.


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