For nearly 80 days in the summer of 1990, First Nations and the Canadian government went head to head in the first well-publicised conflict of the end of the 20th century between them. Caused by a land dispute between a group of Mohawk people and the town of Oka in Quebec, it became known as the Oka Crisis and forms the backdrop to director Tracey Deer’s coming of age drama, Beans.
That it’s based on her own experiences of living through the conflict as a 12 year old immediately grounds the film in reality. Beans, the nickname of Tekahentahkhwa (Kiawentiio), lives on the Mohawk reservation but aspires to greater things and, encouraged by her mother, applies to attend a private high school. But, before she finds out if her dream has come true, the dispute breaks out over the proposed expansion of a golf course which would have encroached on Mohawk woodland and a burial site. What starts as a peaceful demonstration closes a crucial bridge, restricts food supplies and turns into something violent, bitter and fatal, with Beans and her family having to move away to escape the racial aggression and general mob-mentality.
The first feature film to shine a spotlight on the dispute – one more familiar to those on the other side of The Pond – it combines actual news footage with the fictional narrative of Beans’ growing pains and increasing awareness of the struggles faced by the indigenous people. The combination of archive material and drama isn’t always an easy marriage, especially as the makers assume too much knowledge on the part of the audience when it comes to the events, the location and the timeline. That aside, however, as a drama which highlights the frightening ease with which bitter prejudice can be brought to the surface – on both sides of the dispute – it’s more successful. Much the same can be said for its depiction of a girl turning into a teenager, with all the complexities, confusions and missteps that go with it.
There are times when the narrative feels a touch too much like a movie, and it loses its way occasionally, but spearheaded by an impressive performance from Kiawentiio, who carries the film on her young shoulders, it rises above those shortcomings to give the audience something involving, emotional and engaging. She’s well supported by a strong ensemble cast, especially Paulina Alexis as April, the leader of a gang of older kids who Beans thinks are her friends, encouraging her to dress differently, be more aggressive and use the kind of language that her mother wouldn’t want to hear.
Filmed on location at some of the locations where the stand-off actually took place, it highlights a chapter of modern history that many won’t have heard of, let alone remember. It makes a suitably passionate and turbulent setting for the life changes faced by one young girl whose aspirations to make sure “they never throw rocks at us again” are simultaneously admirable and deeply saddening.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Berlin Film Festival | Dir. Tracey Deer| Kiawentiio, Paulina Alexis, Rainbow Dickerson, Violah Beauvais