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Athena Film Festival, Toronto Film Festival: ‘Beans’

(L to R): Kiawentiio, Rainbow Dickerson in ‘Beans’ directed by Tracey Deer at Athena FF (courtesy of the film)

Beans Tracey Deer’s award winning narrative film, inspired by true events, is one of the superb offerings this year at the 11th Annual Athena Film Festival. Throughout March, Athena FF is holding digital Q and As, screenings, talks and more, all uplifting women in film’ and women’s leadership. It is the only women’s film festival in New York City, and sans pandemic it is held at Barnard College. Hopefully, Athena Film Festival will return live for its myriad activities, screenings, conferences, Q and As, parties and awards ceremonies in 2022.

The events in Beans and major thrust of the narrative are inspired by Tracey Deer’s own experiences as a young girl going through the cataclysmic trials of the Mohawk Resistance in the community of Kanesatake, near the Town of Oka, on the north shore of Montreal, Canada. Written by Tracey Deer and Meredith Vuchnich, Beans is a hybrid coming of age story and social justice film set against the backdrop of a 78-day standoff (11 July–26 September 1990) between Mohawk protesters, Quebec police, the RCMP and the Canadian Army. The standoff arose when without permission or negotiation Mohawk land was grabbed by developers who intended to expand a golf course and build condos on lands disputed since 1760 and which involved desecrating an ancient cemetery.

(L to R): Foreground-Violah Beauvais, D’Pharoah Woon-a-Tai, Kiawentiio, Paulina Alexis, Taio Gélinas in ‘Beans,’ Athena FF (courtesy of the film)

During this Oka Crisis, the character “Beans,” whose Indigenous Mohawk name is Tekahentahkhwa (played by the excellent Kiawentiio) learns to appreciate her identity as a Mohawk. She vies between accepting her mother’s wish for her to go to a tony white school to establish a better life for herself and hanging tough with cruel, bullying April (Paulina Alexis) who abuses and exploits Beans’ yearning for friendship using power dominance and browbeating to release her own inner torments.

Tracey Deer’s characterizations are spot-on, as are the actors who portray Beans, April, and Bean’s mom Lily (Rainbow Dickerson). All of the women are representative. Lily is attempting to raise her daughters, teach them successful values, yet negotiate her husband who is a protestor and warrior battling with his countrymen for Mohawk land rights. Beans is torn between her father’s fight and showing what tough resistance is and growing up to be a young woman apart from her mother’s selecting an identity for her and expanding beyond the “sweet-natured,” innocent, good girl.

As Beans worms her way into April’s cold heart by obeying her instruction, and accepting April’s toughening-up abuse, she learns the warrior way to be brash, bullying and fear-inspiring. However, when her eyes are opened to the difficulties April has with her family, Beans learns that becoming inured to pain and not expressing emotion is self-damaging.

(L to R): Kiawentiio as Beans-Tekahentahkhwa and Rainbow Dickerson as Lily, in ‘Beans,’ directed by Tracey Deer, Athena FF (courtesy of the film)

Throughout Beans’ and her family’s journey through the, at times harrowing and punishing 78-day standoff, we see their courage in resistance.. They suffer brutalization from the surrounding community who is caught up in the events. The themes of the film about social activism in returning Indigenous lands back to the Mohawk, represent an ongoing struggle by various Indigenous populations who still fight against land grabs that began when European colonials first visited the Americas. For the Mohawk in this area of Quebec, the Provincial government and Canada have still not returned the land to them, though the cemetery is untouched and the golf course has not been expanded. Subsequently, the Mohawk still seek the lands which belong to them in this ancient dispute which continues to this day.

Beans was the opening night film in the festival. Look for it on IMBD and elsewhere for its performances, storyline and fine direction by Tracey Deer. It is deserving of the awards it won: three awards at festivals (Tracey Deer won VIFF for Best Canadian Feature Film). It was nominated for five other awards.

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