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I Am Tracey

I Am Tracey

Suzan Ayscough
Fall 2014

We’ve all heard the horrific and hopeful story of Malala, a young Afghan woman who dared challenge local customs and stand up for individual women’s rights. Now we can also hear the story of Tracey, a young Mohawk filmmaker who dared challenge local customs and stand up for individual women’s rights in Canada.

You may not know DGC member Tracey Deer’s story because no one gets shot, except with a camera, in controversial documentaries such as Mohawk Girls (2005) and Club Native (2008), which take direct aim at a Canadian measurement system called “blood quantum.” It’s a system that determines one’s Native status—or not—based on the percentage of one’s Indian blood.

“This system was imposed on us by the Canadian government through the Indian Act to erase us from existence,” Deer told Montage over the phone from an editing room where she’s overseeing work on her first dramatic TV series (13 x 30 minutes), also named Mohawk Girls, a romantic comedy that premiers on APTN on November 25 at 9 p.m.

“Having been forced to live under this system for over 100 years, the concept of measuring our ‘purity’ and therefore our ‘worth’ has been entrenched in many of my own people,” Deer continued. “I see it as brainwashing. We’ve been ‘trained’ to qualify, discriminate and exclude each other based on blood purity as the defining characteristic of what makes us who we are. It has led to a very negative attitude towards mixed marriages and mixed parentage.

“I grew up knowing I was 89.62 percent Mohawk,” Deer says. “There are some people with 100 percent—they think they’re superior. When I was young, I felt ‘less than’…. I felt pissed. I was mad that my great-great-grandmother fell for a French guy (I think). I felt hatred for someone who ultimately gave me life. I hated my own lineage. I always felt gross about the whole system. What about who I am? I’m a percentage? A statistic?”

Deer wrangled silently with such identity demons as a young girl but ultimately decided to speak out when she concluded, despite her fears, “We can’t sacrifice our lives for the collective.”

“Courageous” is the word chosen to describe Deer by Alanis Obamsawin, the award-winning Abenaki filmmaker who was busy putting the finishing touches on her own Trick or Treaty for a timely premiere during TIFF 2014 when she was reached at her office at the National Film Board of Canada in Montreal.

Obamsawin had nothing but praise for Deer’s vision: “She was courageous, especially with Mohawk Girls, talking about blood quantum and tackling this very controversial thing about the status of Indians and measuring the blood of their own women. You could be excluded from your own community. How do you think a woman survives that? It’s very difficult.”

“Being half black is worse than being half white,” Deer said on the same topic. She pointed to a real-life case affecting a good friend, a story that inspired some of the action in the upcoming Mohawk Girls, season one. Yet the bold filmmaker who today is creating, directing and producing Mohawk Girls, the TV series, has come a very long way from the fearful young woman who made Mohawk Girls, the feature-doc.

“It was terrifying because I wanted to tell the ugly truth, and how were my people going to feel if the truth was ugly?” Deer asked rhetorically. “Our interaction with Canada has been marred by many awful things. I think the attitude is ‘Don’t give Canada any more ammunition against us.’ And with Mohawk Girls, I was afraid I was doing just that.

“But they didn’t get mad. All that fear was for nothing, but it was part of my process. I’m not afraid any more. That process was me finding my feet. I feel proud of what I’m doing and I believe in it. I hope I’m making a positive contribution.”

The series Mohawk Girls is being billed as a romantic comedy by executive producer Catherine Bainbridge (Rezolution Pictures), who says it’s like “Sex and the City, Mohawk style.” How did it become a romantic comedy? “These stories come from Tracey’s life and very existence and she’s been so generous in telling them. They’re told with sensitivity and humour and fun and love,” says Bainbridge, who believes the series will reach its target demographic of girls and young women.

Deer also hopes Mohawk Girls the series will touch young Aboriginal women and bridge the gap with the rest of Canada. “With all my films, and the show itself, I like to put the mirror up to my own people,” she said. “We need to be looking at ourselves because things need to change for the better. Sticking our heads in the sand and playing the blame game, with the victim mentality—we’re not going to build something positive from that. I hope my work generates conversations. And if anyone gets mad at the honesty, that’s because it’s the reality we’re living in. Let’s look at the reality and change that.

“The other prong is a goal to build bridges with Canadians,” she continued. “What Canadians are exposed to with regards to my people is very negative and superficial. News doesn’t dig into the context of the situation so I hope Mohawk Girls provides that context. It deals with universal themes everyone can relate to: love and sex and searching for identity.”

So where did Tracey Deer, now 36 years old, find all this courage? Deer says it came during the summer of 1990 when she was just 12 years old. The Oka Crisis, as it was dubbed, went on from early July until late September and became international news when the Mohawks of Kahnawake (Tracey’s community) created a blockade on the Mercier Bridge to Montreal in solidarity with the Mohawk community of Kanesatake, after the town of Oka refused to cancel plans to dig up the latter’s ancestral burial ground to clear the way for another nine holes of golf (on an existing nine-hole course) and other developments.

“The Mohawks of Kanesatake stood up and we backed them,” Deer says of the summer she grew up. “The Oka Crisis was running the gauntlet to adulthood. The Crisis marked the end of childhood for me. Before that, life was just a ball of fun. I have a huge family. They’re all within a couple of blocks from where I lived on ‘Sesame Street’ [a nickname]. We have a park right on our street. We lived right on the water. We played in the woods, made campfires and roasted marshmallows. It was tons of fun. I wasn’t very aware of the rest of the world or how different we were.

“At first it was just an awesome adventure,” says Deer of the first two months of the Crisis. “This alternate cool universe. Go and get your daily rations and you didn’t know what you were going to get—it was fun. Until the rumour came that the army was going to invade and all women and children should leave the reserve.” The fun was over. Deer became very angry at how she and her people were treated. Eventually she “was able to harness that anger” and develop an attitude of “I’ll show you!” but that took time.

“The world wanted me to disappear or be invisible,” she says. “They expected failure from me. I said, ‘You know what? I’m going to prove you wrong.’ In the documentary Mohawk Girls, I think I said, ‘I can take on the world.’”

Deer’s new attitude was fuelled by another life-altering event: “After the Oka Crisis we got our first video store on the reserve,” she explains. Seeing films like Medicine Man in which a scientist played by Sean Connery finds a cure for cancer was “quite empowering to a kid,” she says. “I began wondering, ‘How do I become this?’ I’ve always been very goal-oriented. And at the end of one movie, I finally thought, ‘I’ll get to be a part of that if I just make movies.’ It was so clear in that moment: ‘This is what I’m supposed to do.’ And I told my Mom and Dad and they said, ‘That’s great, sweetie.’”

Deer became focused on getting her hands on the one camera the video store rented that “weighed 25 pounds” and she saved her allowance for two to three months to rent it for one weekend. “All my early films were horror movies,” she says. “Nobody stopped me from having their children running around with knives and killing each other. At 12 or 13 years old, my first movie was Halloween at Tota’s which means Halloween at Grandmother’s. Looking back, clearly I was in a dark place.”

Also not long afterwards, Deer started going to a private girls’ school “on the island,” which is what Mohawks call Montreal. She then went to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire on a full scholarship and took film studies modified with photography. She did a four-month internship at Global News, which gave her some news chops. She did a 10-day intensive National Screen Institute (NSI) storytellers’ workshop and was “an observer” on the series Moose TV, under the wing of director Tim Southam.

Southam, who also directed the powerful indictment of the Ipperwash crisis, One Dead Indian (2005), praises Deer for two reasons: “She’s fighting for the individual’s identity and rights and she also took the time to really develop as a skilled drama director.” In the NSI workshop, he adds, “She was fearless and at the absolute forefront. Now she’s applying advanced chops to something that really matters to her.” Southam also said she has the skill of a “mainstream director,” so it is her choice to create “niche programming.”

Through all of this education, Deer began a practice that she still has today of having two homes and two perspectives. “I have a home in Montreal and I still have a home on the Reserve,” she said.

Deer says all of her life experiences, her early horror movies and her education led her to work on her “first real movie,” One More River with Neil Diamond (Reel Injuns) when she was 23. She had been planning to move to New York City when fate hooked her up with producer Bainbridge. They talked for a few hours and she “hired me on the spot” to work as Diamond’s production assistant, a position she parlayed into a co-director credit.

“I went back to the producers and said, ‘I’m doing way more up there than being an assistant.’ I figured I’d go for director and negotiate my way down. After I presented my case, they said, ‘You are co-director.’ I was in a daze. I was so excited.”

That’s why today, Deer tells younger filmmakers, “Don’t wait for lighting to strike you. You need to open the doors yourselves.” With One More River under her belt, Deer said Bainbridge made an offer over dinner: “If you have any of your own ideas to pitch, I’d be happy to hear them.’ So right there at dinner, I said, ‘Growing up, I felt invisible and voiceless. Telling the story of young people and who they are in Kahnawake is what I want to do.’” Bainbridge loved it and so did the NFB and APTN, and Mohawk Girls the doc was made.

It’s also worth noting that Rez Pictures’ producer Christina Fon said Deer is very passionate about her work and topics but she is equally savvy about budgets. “Tracey is one of the rare artists that has two sides to her,” Fon said. “First she has a vision, but secondly, she is also sensitive to producers. She’s not at all hands-on financing but she really cares about being on time and on budget.”

Initially that combo made it easier to get another picture happening. Up next was another gruelling doc about blood quantum called Club Native, after which Deer said she was “emotionally exhausted” and couldn’t imagine taking on another documentary right away, nor take on the “responsibility that goes with filming people’s real lives.”

She took a long rest before she went back to Rezolution Pictures to pitch a fiction version of Mohawk Girls, which led to a pilot of the same name four years ago. “But one of the four leads declined the show, so we reshot the pilot with the rest of the series,” said Deer. “We rewrote and reshot the half-hour pilot that kicks off the new season.”

The new season of Mohawk Girls, which kicks off on APTN in the fall, has an accompanying website, MOHAWKGIRLS.COM. Check it out to see webisodes, photo galleries, an interactive quiz and more.

Suzan Ayscough is a freelance journalist and president of her own media company, @OnCamera3000. She is also Director, Communications for the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television and co-founder of Playback’s Canadian Film & Television Hall of Fame.

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