Tracey Deer

Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer led the acclaimed dramedy “Mohawk Girls” to five award-winning seasons as its co-creator, director, and co-showrunner. She received four consecutive Canadian Screen Award nominations for Best Direction in a Comedy Series for “Mohawk Girls,” and she has been honored at the Toronto International Film Festival with the Birks Diamond Tribute Award. She recently returned from Los Angeles, where she was a writing co-EP on the Netflix/CBC series “Anne with an E.” She is currently working on “Inner City Girl,” a feature about Aboriginal gang life, with Original Pictures. Tracey’s work has been honored with two Gemini Awards and numerous awards from multiple film festivals, including Hot Docs. She has worked with the CBC, the National Film Board, and numerous independent production companies throughout Canada in both documentary and fiction. Tracey chairs the Board of Directors of Women in View, a non-profit that promotes greater diversity and gender parity in Canadian media. She has mentored emerging talent as leader of the Director Training Program at the imagineNATIVE Film & Media Arts Festival, as a guest at the National Screen Institute (NSI) New Indigenous Voices Program, and as mentor at NSI’s new IndigiDocs training course.

Tara Karajica talks to Tracey Deer about women in film, her next project, being a TIFF Emerging Talent Award recipient, and more importantly, her first feature film, “Beans,” that is premiering in both the Discovery and TIFF Next Wave programs of this year’s Toronto International Film Festival and is a moving story based on true events that chronicles the 78-day standoff between two Mohawk communities and government forces in 1990 in Quebec.

 

 

Beans was inspired by your memories of the Oka Crisis in 1990. Why did you want to retell this story?

Tracey Deer: You know, that summer was really the transition from innocent childhood to a much more complicated time as you become an adolescent. It was a very shattering time for me to understand my place in the world as an indigenous person and that it wasn’t a safe and welcoming place. It really defined who I am, both good and bad, and I think it has had a profound effect on many of us and also in such a pivotal moment in Canadian history that I wanted to make sure we didn’t forget about it. I also wanted to use it to look at how a destructive effect racism and violence can have on children – I don’t want anything like that to ever happen again. So, it’s important that we don’t forget and we learn from our mistakes.

Of course! Beans is you in a way. Can you talk about the intricacies of writing this character and in that sense reclaiming your worth?

T.D.: The scriptwriting process was very long. It was myself and my co-writer, Meredith Vuchnich. It took us about eight years to get to a script that I was ready to shoot and a big challenge in the beginning was separating myself from the character. I was having a really difficult time navigating that and I think a big breakthrough happened in the script when I allowed Beans to become her own character and separate her from my own experiences as a twelve-year old. So, my experience definitely inspires the film and my own coming of age journey as an indigenous woman is the throughline of the film, but I definitely was not at all of the different scenes, all of the different events that Beans goes through. I did not live all of those myself. I did live some of them. And once I sort of cut that chord – I have a younger sister as well and same thing for the whole family –, it became a lot easier to shape the story in what it is we wanted to say.

This is a coming of age story like no other and it is timely, with a political, social, cultural and racial component. Can you talk about that?

T.D.: We’ve been writing this film for eight years. I’ve been wanting to make this film ever since I was a little girl when I lived this experience. We shot it last year and it’s really incredible for me the time we are now in for the film to come out because when we were making it last fall, I think it was a different film only because the world was in a different place. The story and the themes expressed in the film are not new or are not a surprise to indigenous, black and people of color. I think those communities can really relate to everything that takes place in the film and we have all been fighting for recognition, our rights and social justice forever it seems. The big difference now is that, all of a sudden, it seems like the world has woken up and is listening, so that is really exciting because it will take all of us to make significant and lasting change happen. I do hope that the film adds to the movement that we are currently in and I’m really hopeful because there seems to be such an openness right now for our stories.

In that sense, what kind of impact do you think Beans will have? In the sense that it has the power to awaken people, teach them not to be violent or racist and more accepting, to protect the next generations from repeating the mistakes of our past and our present and inspire Canada to step up?  But it also educates on the Mohawk Nation and more importantly it can have an impact of adolescent girls who feel the world is a dangerous place – like you yourself did – and that their difference makes them a target.

T.D.: I absolutely hope that it has a massive impact on all of those elements you touch upon. In my work, I have always focused very much on wanting to build bridges between our community and the outside communities because I do believe that compassion, understanding and being able to relate to one another is the path to a better future for all of us. I think that there has been this great divide and it’s very easy to dismiss the “other” and my goal is for people to not see us as “other” and not easily dismiss us or turn to the limited stereotypes they may have been fed over the years. It’s about humanizing my people and our experience and connecting each other to see that we are not so different, so I’m really looking to build allies – we have a long road ahead of us as indigenous people and we need this country by our side for that journey. And in order to do so, we need allies and we need people who will stand with us, so I’m hoping that they fall in love with Beans and her family and by the end of the film feel motivated to do something that is within their power because we all do carry our own sets of powers and we can all make a difference. I truly believe that. So, I want them to leave the theater wanting to do whatever they can to help Beans and all indigenous children like her have a better future and for their dreams to matter and for their hopes to be important. I grew up feeling very invisible, very voiceless and that is what I don’t want to happen anymore. I want there to be a space for my people and for our children.

What is it like to present Beans precisely at TIFF, a place of inclusion, progress, diversity, a community that embraces, discusses and sees the films? And to also be given the TIFF Emerging Talent Award?

T.D.: It’s incredibly special. I participated in two professional development programs at TIFF, both the Studio Program and the Filmmakers Lab and with both programs I brought Beans that I was working on and the big dream was to make the film and have it premiere at the festival, so the fact that that’s happening is incredible. And then on top of it, I’m getting this incredible honor with the TIFF Emerging Talent Award, so it really is just a dream come true and I’m really, really proud to be premiering there and I’m nervous, I’m hopeful, I’m overwhelmed! I’m all feelings combined!

In Beans, the Oka Crisis is seen from both a female and a Mohawk point of view. It is certainly revisionist in a way. Can you comment on that?

T.D.: I think most of the country and most of the world have experienced the Oka Crisis from the point of view of the mainstream media and they have their own preconceived notions of what that event was about and who we are. I know, for the longest time, people were just afraid of us and had this terrible idea that we were violent terrorists, which is so, so far from the truth. So, I definitely wanted to show it from the inside and what my reality was and is as a part of this community. And as a woman, as a young girl. Mohawk people are matriarchal, so I’ve grown up and have been raised by very, very strong women who are just incredible leaders and incredibly powerful. So, for me as a young woman, that’s what I am looking up to as my models. It was completely natural for me to tell this story from that perspective and that point of view because that is how I’ve lived it.

Beans learns the intricacies of using her voice, activism, violent racism, to stand up for herself and become aware of who she is and who/what she wants to be. Can you elaborate on that and this particular emotional journey?

T.D.: That has been my journey. I didn’t learn it all that summer as she does in the film. It took me through my adolescence and my early twenties to find my voice and to find that confidence and that strength and I wish I had it when I was younger. The message I was carrying – the idea that I was quite worthless – is not what I want our kids to feel, so it was very important for me to have Beans reject that classification and stand up for herself and stand up for her worth and find her voice. I do want her to be looked at as a role model to other young girls who might be watching the film. It’s already hard to come of age, it’s already so hard to be a teenager, but then you throw in all of these other elements that just make it so, so hard. So, Beans is a heroine to me and I hope she’s a heroine to others of just how to persevere and rise above. I hope these things don’t happen again, but if they do come your way, do not let them tear you down because then they win. So, it was really important to me for Beans to find her way to rise above it, find a different way and not follow onto that cycle of violence and despair.

There has been so much talk about the situation of women in film in the past almost three years. What is your opinion on the matter? Where do you position yourself in this discussion? How is it in Canada?

T.D.: I think we’re in the same boat as every other place, but headway is being made. I’m part of an organization called Women in View that is an advocacy group that is working on that very issue of gender parity and we put out a report every year on where things are at and we are seeing things change, so that’s very encouraging. I still think we have a long way to go. I’m really proud to be a female director out there doing the work and I think it’s great that we’re getting the platform and the recognition that we deserve now.

Do you have a favorite female filmmaker and a favorite film by a female filmmaker?

T.D.: I’ve always found those questions really difficult because to zero it in on just one is hard because I admire so many, but I would reference Alanis Obomsawin who is a documentarian here in Canada and she’s been working, I think, for fifty years and she’s put out a film every single year. She did the work Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance, which is an indigenous-told documentary about the Oka Crisis and it was my first exposure to indigenous filmmaking when I was just a young woman and I was incredibly inspired by the film, but also by her. So, that’s who I would point to first and foremost.

I know it’s a difficult and uncertain time right now, but do you have anything in the pipeline after Beans?

T.D.: I do have another feature that I have also been writing for years. I think I spent six years writing that one. I’m almost finished, so I’m hoping that will be my next feature. It is an adaptation of a book called Inner City Girl Like Me and it is about two young teenage girls navigating life in an indigenous gang in Winnipeg.

In your director’s statement you say you tell stories because you want your people to thrive and not merely survive, which I really liked a lot. So, it’s also very much in line with that?

T.D.: Yes. And it’s going to be exploring many of the same themes that I’ve been exploring for the last twenty years.

 

 

 

Photo credits: TIFF.

Tara Karajica

Tara Karajica is a Belgrade-based film critic and journalist. Her writings have appeared in "Indiewire," "Screen International," "Variety," "Little White Lies" and "Film New Europe," among many other media outlets, including the European Film Academy’s online magazine, "Close-up" and Eurimages. She is a member of the European Film Academy, the Online Film Critics Society and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists as well as the recipient of the 2014 Best Critic Award at the Altcine Action! Film Festival. In September 2016, she founded "Yellow Bread," a magazine dedicated entirely to short films, ranked among the 25 Top Short Film Blogs and Websites on the Planet in 2017. In February 2018, she launched "Fade to Her," a magazine about successful women working in Film and TV and in 2019, she was a member of the Jury of the European Shooting Stars (European Film Promotion). She is currently a programmer for live action shorts at PÖFF Shorts, Head of the Short Film Program and Live Action Shorts programmer at SEEFest and Narrative Features Programmer at the Durban International Film Festival. Tara is a regular at film festivals as a film critic, moderator and/or jury member.

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