|Director Tracey Deer|
|Young actress Kiawentiio Tarbell|
|The director on the set|
|Tracey Deer on Mercier Bridge|
BEANS B Canada (92 mi) 2020 d: Tracey Deer
A film that beautifully evokes a different time and place, yet very much resembles the world we’re living in today. Based on memories the director experienced as a child, she has crafted a coming-of-age story about a 12-year-old Mohawk girl whose given name is Tekehentahkhwa, but everyone just calls her “Beans,” played by Kiawentiio Tarbell, growing up in Kahnawake, part of Kanehsatà:ke, or Kanesatake, a Mohawk reserve in Québec that is the oldest surviving Mohawk community today that pre-existed European contact, located on the northern bank of the Ottawa River, less than an hour across the river from Montreal. During the summer of 1990 she witnesses a peaceful Mohawk protest against a planned golf course expansion that intends to bulldoze a Mohawk cemetery on land the Mohawk said was held in “trust” for them but was instead sold off by the Catholic Church, along with more than 95 per cent of their original territory, information that was not commonly known at the time. When the Mohawk take a stand to protect their land, it erupts into an ugly confrontation that leads to bullets flying and a dead police officer, creating a stand-off that lasts for 77 days known as the Oka crisis, or the Kanesatake Resistance, where armed Mohawk resisters create barricades blocking a local road, followed by barricades built by local police, obstructing traffic for local citizens in the town of Oka, whose voices quickly turn belligerent. The resistance escalates when Mohawks block Mercier Bridge, a vital means of transport, cutting off access between Montreal’s southern suburbs and the Island of Montreal, with the resulting chaos angering area residents, whose vehement displeasure is captured by news reports plastering daily coverage on television. While ostensibly a children’s story, it’s not so much about kids as the racist, hateful, and extremely violent behavior of adults and the effects this has on children, who don’t really understand it, so the film helps viewers relive this experience through the lens of a bright and impressionable young girl who initially thinks the best path for her future will come by attending Queen Heights Academy, a private, all-girl’s school that is also all-white. The moment, however, that she joins one of her cousins on the front line, her life is changed forever, as they are assaulted by explosions and rounds of tear gas canisters, causing immediate pandemonium, where what was an afternoon exchanging food and pleasantries with friends and family turns into survival mode, where she and her little sister Ruby (Violah Beauvais) are terrified by what they witness, including a barrage of foul language she’d never heard before, as people on both sides get riled up and angry, routinely spewing the F-word and other well-chosen expletives at the other side. Returning to the safety of their home, they have to reevaluate their situation, as life on both sides of the barricades has inalterably changed, as buying groceries isn’t so easy anymore, as you have to cross to the other side of the barricades where angry mobs are waiting, mostly whites lambasting them with hate speech, leaving them totally ostracized, reminding indigenous people they’re not welcome in their town or stores, with local citizens swarming onto the streets at night hanging and burning an effigy of a Mohawk warrior. Local citizens direct their ire towards First Nation people for all their inconveniences, with some even losing their jobs, as people are increasingly challenged and frustrated with their lives suddenly turned on the edge. Yet her family, as well as others, are completely unprepared for the viciousness of the hostility directed towards them, forcing them into a bunker mentality at home. While not in the film, First Nation people across Canada organized protests and erected barricades as far away as British Columbia, blocking roadways and railways, bringing the Canadian transcontinental railway traffic to a halt.
The use of archival news footage is a brilliant choice, adding an unparalleled immediacy, where the news of the officer’s death is initially heard on the car radio on the ride home afterwards, yet Deer also makes another significant choice, as all the Québec locals speak subtitled French, yet the entire First Nation population speaks English, as racism in Québec excluded them from the French-speaking schools, major cultural institutions, and employment opportunities, sending many into Ontario or the United States. The film never gets into the background of the confrontation, as First Nation rights had eroded to the point of dismissiveness when this event occurred, as there was a long history of lawsuits over issues concerning First Nation land. Instead the film focusses on the closeness of the family unit, where Beans and Ruby are extremely close, while their mother Lily (Rainbow Dickerson) seems more adamant in pushing Beans into private school than their father (Joel Montgrand), who prefers that Beans make up her own mind. When their father helps man the barricades, they help out, viewed initially as their civic duty, helping build pride in being Mohawk, where the girls don’t really understand the issues, but want to help out their family and friends. But when they come under attack, fending for their lives, they have to re-examine their goals, affirming that their cause is just, yet they get a taste of how the other side feels when they take a trip into town to stock up on food and are met with a fierce resistance, as the store refuses to serve them, describing them as terrorists, with some calling them “savages,” which meets the applause of local citizens, Beans new clip official "Supemarket" from Berlin Film Festival 2021 - 2/3 YouTube (1:43). Moving between innocence and a more vicious reality, much of this feels like an obstacle course forever blocking people from pursuing their path, as obstructions can turn ugly and even violent, producing terrifying results. When Beans and her little sister inspect the cemetery for themselves, they find it overrun with golf balls, yet they also run into some older Mohawk kids in the woods who tease them, exploiting their fears, and then having a good laugh at their expense, something Beans doesn’t forget, so she seeks out one of the girls, April (Paulina Alexis), a much tougher kid with a rough exterior, as if from a different side of the tracks. With no mother, and an abusive father who is drunk most of the time, April and her brother Hank (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) basically raise themselves, using a much more aggressive style of language that includes plenty of rebellious profanity, where Beans turns to April like she would a big sister. Initially April wants no part of her, teasing her about her perfect life, but she grows to like the idea of toughening her up, teaching her to fight, also to endure pain and not complain. These are invaluable lessons, but when she brings that angry attitude into her own home her mother has a fit, immediately straightening her out, where she seems to be caught between two worlds. Like many young pre-teens, Beans wants to grow up fast, wearing make-up, dressing differently, drinking beer, asserting herself with an aggressive tongue, and being around boys, where this new attention opens up her eyes, yet April’s been down this road and tries to protect Beans, but she’s ready to jump in headfirst with no questions asked.
Meanwhile, things escalate on the front lines, with both sides digging in, as Québec Premiere Robert Bourassa calls in the national army, claiming “We have to assume the protection of our people,” which evidently doesn’t include the First Nations as “our people,” with the local police giving way to a Canadian Army force of four thousand soldiers (more than were sent to the Persian Gulf at any given time) with helicopters, tanks, and barbed wire (depleting the entire national stockpile), where the rhetoric only increases, with both sides growing ever more antagonistic. Realizing just how out-of-control things are getting, with tempers flaring and rifles aimed in anger, the Mohawk women form a human chain between the barricades, preventing guns from being fired, while hoping to remind the men that people are watching, and that they won’t ever be respected unless they themselves act respectfully, Beans new clip official "Wall of Moms" from Berlin Film Festival 2021 - 3/3 YouTube (1:13), while behind the scenes negotiators are searching for a middle ground. Rather than starve without food, the government agrees to transport Mohawk women and children to a safer environment off the reserve, providing temporary housing, yet when they are escorted across the bridge by police, their cars are pelted with rocks when passing through town, shattering windows and damaging vehicles while spewing hateful comments, resembling a war zone, a landscape of seething racism and utter contempt, while Canadian police look on passively, making no effort to protect them or stop the assault. This only enrages Beans and her family, as this kind of senseless violence is preventable, but it’s reflective of the overall out-of-control anger reaching a boiling point. Television reports reveal how dismissive some residents have become of their indigenous neighbors, yet others are on their side, as they’ve never been listened to or taken seriously by the Canadian government, suggesting those demeaning attitudes must change and a culture shift is in order. In this new supposedly safe environment, Beans is hanging out with April and her friends, taking a walk in the woods with her brother Hank, supposedly to gather firewood, but he has other ideas, making an explicit sexual advance that horrifies the young girl, taking comfort with April afterwards, who reveals she has to fight off her own drunken father. Beans emulates the behavior of the older kids, right down to intimidating kids younger than she is and bullying them, exactly as she once was. These kinds of revelations are rare in a children’s film, appropriate for ages 14 and up, yet the director has a way of projecting anxiety and fears from the perspective of a young girl on the verge of becoming a teenager, forced for the first time to deal with complex adult issues. Part of the strength of the film lies in the mother Lily, who is pregnant with a third child, yet her unwavering resolve in her family as well as the Mohawk cause is part of a larger issue of learning to respect human rights, while also exerting a calming force in the midst of bedlam, helping Beans navigate her way through the trauma of difficult times. She does visit the Queen Heights Academy near the end, not as a classmate but as a visiting spokesperson, telling her story, revealing her unique Mohawk perspective, where a humanizing presence may help bridge the gap between cultural differences, much like this film does, hoping to prevent racial stereotypes from poisoning yet another future by instilling a sense of empathy and an understanding that equality matters in the minds of a new generation.