It is 1990. Twelve-year-old Beans and her family learn that a golf course is to be constructed on Mohawk burial grounds. They eagerly join a group of protesters to try to block the construction, but riot police disperse tear gas into the crowd of protesters, triggering a shootout that leaves an officer dead. The Mohawk people barricade their land; the Canadian government, who refuses to concede, soon calls the army to step in. The Oka Crisis has begun.
For director Tracey Deer, who grew up in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake, this crisis was a deeply formative experience. It also marked the point that she decided to become a filmmaker.
“I thought, one day, I want to share this story,” Deer said at a virtual Q&A for the 2021 Athena Film Festival. “But I want to share it from our point of view, [and] my point of view as a child.”
It is particularly fitting that Deer’s first feature film, “Beans,” which was showcased at the festival, would be an intimate, intense retelling of the crisis that shaped her life. The film, punctuated by several archival montages, educates viewers about the historical context of the crisis. However, the most impactful moments of “Beans” are when history plays out directly on screen.
Deer’s filmmaking is direct and uncompromising, embodying the chaos and terror that Beans experienced during the crisis. The film shows the French-speaking locals aggressively surrounding the girl’s family, calling them “sauvages,” cursing, and spitting at them. Stones are thrown at their car, breaking windows and nearly injuring her little sister. An effigy of a Mohawk person is hanged and burned in public. The echoes of jeers and yells, as well as the striking imagery, stick with viewers long after the film has ended.
Many of those moments like the stoning scene were taken straight from Deer’s own memories. She is careful to stress that the film’s characters are fictional—she was not, for instance, present at the initial raid in the forest that sparked the conflict. However, the film is deeply personal to her; Beans, like Deer, was forced to contend with racism and navigate her own sense of identity during the crisis.
“It was that summer that I realized being who I am was not necessarily something that was welcome outside of the safety of my community,” Deer recalled. “It was a very difficult way to start to understand what it means to be an Indigenous person in this world. At that age, especially with that level of violence, I was not equipped to navigate all of the emotions that it brought up.”
The film follows Beans, played by Kiawentiio, as she explores her Mohawk and preteen identity over the 78 days of the Oka Crisis. As the crisis escalates, Beans is forced to grow up quickly as she looks after her younger sister, befriends a group of teens who encourage her to be “tough,” and copes with the stress of the blockades and the violent racism she faces.
Although “Beans” is a period piece set three decades ago, Deer is aware that her film has the ability to provide insights into modern-day resistance movements such as Canadian Indigenous struggles for land rights.
“[As a period piece, “Beans”] is a safe way into a very difficult topic that we are still currently living through today as Indigenous people and people of color,” Deer said. “The audience grew exponentially for who would be open and able to … engage with the message of the film.”
The struggle for structural and systematic change for Indigenous people is still ongoing. Thirty years after the Oka Crisis formally ended, after the blockades were torn down and the golf course construction was blocked, the Mohawk people still have not won land rights. To date, the government has yet to apologize for its role in escalating the Oka Crisis, provide reparations, or return the land purchased from the developers.
Still, Deer chooses to remain optimistic. “Beans” ends on a decidedly high note: A final historical montage, backed by upbeat music, shows people from all over Canada rallying for the Mohawk people. The barricades are torn down, symbolically reconnecting the Mohawk people with their Canadian neighbors. The decision to end the film with optimism and positivity, rather than the difficulties that lay ahead, was deliberate, as Deer recognizes the necessity for solidarity in order to combat injustice.
“The wider society support is crucial because a lot of the problems and the difficulties we were dealing with—they’re not of our making. They are of the making of the larger society,” she said.
Despite its harrowing, viscerally powerful moments, “Beans” is ultimately a celebration of the importance of allyship and activism as well as the power of individuals to come together to fight against injustice. Deer’s own perspective, developed through her personal experience, brings compelling depth to these themes.
“It’s a dark film. It’s a difficult film. But I am a hopeful person,” Deer said. “[I want my work] to be forward-looking and hopeful and provide a pathway on how things can get better.”