Women Behind Canadian TV: Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer

Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer
Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer

The importance of telling diverse stories about underrepresented communities is nothing new to the women behind APTN’s Mohawk Girls. Cynthia Knight and Tracey Deer are going into their fourth season on the comedy series that features four twenty-something Mohawk women trying to find their place in the world and has been nominated for four 2016 Canadian Screen Awards1. Deer, who was named one of Playback Magazine’s rising stars in Canadian Entertainment in 2008, was born and raised in the Kahnawake Mohawk Territory near Montreal where the show is set, and the documentary filmmaker directs all of the show’s episodes. Knight is a graduate of the Canadian Film Centre’s TV Writers’ Program and serves as principal writer and showrunner.

The two spoke with The TV Junkies as part of our Women Behind Canadian TV series to discuss why they believe stories about minorities can be universally appealing, as well as the unique position they find themselves in with Mohawk Girls. “It’s interesting from our perspective because we have a very female heavy show in front of the camera and behind the camera. It’s not surprising, but it’s always shocking to read the numbers of women and minorities that work in our industry,” says Knight.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

The TV Junkies: Mohawk Girls began as a documentary film of Tracey’s, but how was it brought to television and what brought you two together on the project?

Tracey Deer: I spent 10 years doing documentary. I made two films about my community, Mohawk Girls and Club Native, all around issues of identity and belonging–these are things as a Mohawk woman myself I had been wondering about my whole life. At some point I got to an emotional burnout with real life stories and I kind of hit a block on what documentary I would do next.

My original vision when I was a 12 year old girl and I wanted to be a filmmaker was to do fiction. So I found myself in my late 20s thinking ‘OK I’m stuck in documentary and I can’t come up with another idea, but what about fiction? Maybe my skills will translate over and maybe I can get into people’s hearts and homes in a different medium through fiction.’ So I took all the issues that I’m obsessed with and curious about and everything that was in my own life, my sister’s life, my cousin’s life–love and place in the world as young women–and made a short film called Escape Hatch.

I was able to present that to Rezolution Pictures and they got in touch with the Aboriginal People’s Television Network (APTN). At this point I’m a documentary filmmaker, but I’m not a television storyteller, and I had teamed up with Cynthia Knight for a small, 3D film I had done three years earlier. So I said ‘I know who we can get and I know who’s going to be amazing.’ So I called Cynthia and said ‘please, please, please come on board I need you!’ We’ve been at it ever since.

Cynthia Knight: I remember I was in my car heading to the gym, and Tracey, along with Catherine Bainbridge, one of our producers, called. I had actually read about her project and they were saying it was like Sex and the City on the rez. It’s the kind of stuff I love to do and work on–bittersweet stuff based in reality, but fun and light with something important to say. So I turned around and went over in my gym clothes and it was a good decision.

TTVJ: So the network was on board right away and had no concerns about bringing a story about four minority women to life?

TD: No, it’s been a really incredible working relationship with APTN. They have really been supportive of the idea from the beginning and have given us the creative freedom to make the show what we want it to be. A lot of my past work has been with that network and they really knew me. They also have a long relationship with Rezolution Pictures. It’s been really trusting and we’ve had a lot creative freedom.

CK: In terms of the part of the question ‘was the network open to bringing minority stories to life?’ That’s definitely part of APTN’s mandate, to put aboriginal stories on the screen. We did pursue a second broadcaster in Canada as well to see if one of the main networks would be interested. We got some feedback like ‘well this is an aboriginal story so it belongs on APTN and not our channel.’ A lot of the other networks were either interested or at the very least intrigued. It’s definitely a bit risque some of the material, so it has to air after 9 p.m. and that means they need two comedies to air back-to-back instead of a one hour drama. Who knows what the reaction would have been like or if they would’ve been open to it if it wasn’t for that? But we definitely got some comments like ‘Oh, it’s a native story so it goes on the native channel!’

APTN
APTN

TTVJ: Did you personally have any concerns about bringing these Mohawk-specific stories to the screen or have doubts about whether everyone would be able to relate?

CK: I’m a firm believer in the the fact that if you tell stories that have a universal truth then people will relate. The specificity doesn’t alienate people, it actually makes it more relatable and believable because they can relate to their own crazy cultural specificity. Tracey is Mohawk and I come from a very different world. I’m an urbanite from Montreal and I’m Jewish. It’s a very different world, but these questions we explore in the series are common to women in general, when you have to grapple with these issues of identity, belonging, sticking to your own versus venturing into the outside world or falling in love with someone else. We always want to make sure that everything in the show is true to the world, and the beautiful parts of, problems with or issues that are specific to that world yet, also resonate with me or anyone else who is a young woman–especially young women who are minorities.

TTVJ: Just like we all didn’t have to be women living in Manhattan to understand Sex and the City.

CK: Exactly! We related to the core of it–the friendships, the search for love, the questions of ‘Are you going to be alone? Do you settle?’–it’s exactly that. It’s fantasy and wish-fulfillment, but it’s based in these truths that we can really relate to and we’ve all been through at some point or another.

TTVJ: With four minority female leads and two women running the show, how can we bottle the magic you have going on at Mohawk Girls and spread it around to the rest of the television industry?

CK: It actually goes even further than that because our producers are all women and our digital media producer is a woman and the head of APTN is a woman.

TD: Also our line producer who runs the entire production is a woman.

TTVJ: Is that all on purpose?

CK: We just hire the best people. On the writing front, aside from the first season where we had one male writer, every other season we’ve had all women writing. We have interviewed a couple of guys, but it feels like more of a natural fit to have women writing women characters. Not in general that they are better at writing women characters, but these are coming of age women in their 20s navigating shitty dating lives and finding out who they are. So the people that responded the best to the material, and really got what we were doing, happened to be female. We wanted to make sure we had other minorities in the writing room to make sure that we’d really represent different people’s voices and have people really respond to the material.

TD: For my part, I love working with women. That’s partly my answer, but I don’t know if it’s Quebec in particular, or Montreal in particular, but there are phenomenally talented, powerful women and we grab them when we can. I think it’s really been a pleasure. I’ve been on some productions and some sets where it’s not been such a pleasure. We work really hard to get the right people, with the right attitude, on this show because we love what we do and we want to love it every second of every day. It just so happens that a lot of the people around us are women.

CK: That was really our guiding force, that we really want to work with people who are the right fit. That means they have the same kind of attitude to the work that we do. It’s hard enough and stressful enough that it doesn’t have to be anxiety-inducing. We don’t need people who are belligerent. We wanted people who are team players and who are passionate about their work. Interestingly enough, we ended up hiring a lot of women.

I have to say overall that it creates a very different dynamic having so many women in all these leadership positions. I think we work as hard, but it’s very convivial. It feels like a big family. It’s an environment that really fosters creativity.

APTN
APTN

TTVJ: You certainly do not shy away from sex and controversial topics. Does having that sort of environment help you feel comfortable enough to bring those stories to the table?

TD: From the very beginning APTN has been very supportive, so each season we’ve always put forward exactly what we would love to do. It’s been incredible because we’ve always been like ‘maybe they aren’t going to like this part,’ and they come back with ‘Wow! We love that part!’ So we’ve really been able to go for it because we want to talk about real things. We want to talk about things that are really impacting women and how do we deal with these tough things? This is the stuff that’s really important to Cynthia and I–we’ve lived it ourselves–it’s really exciting to be able to talk about these things on television.

CK: We’re so fortunate with our network because it’s really tough to be able to show certain things on broadcast television, but I don’t think we’ve ever had one issue that they’ve said no to because it was too risque or daring. In fact they really support that and there’s really an excitement about exploring difficult issues.

TTVJ: What are the challenges then that still exist for getting more women and minorities behind the scenes?

CK: One of your interviews you were talking about working with people that you know and if that works well then you want to keep doing that. Tracey and I have had different writers every season, and it can be really exciting, but it can also be kind of daunting because like they said, if you work with people and it works well, don’t you want to do that instead of hiring people you don’t know? It’s always a big risk, and we obviously come from a different point of view because there’s never been, in the course of this show, an issue or impediment with being a woman.

But the minority thing is a whole different category. We were actively looking for minority writers to work on our show–especially minority females–because they more than anyone can understand this material. But it was actually hard to find because there aren’t so many of those people, and certainly we were thrilled to have a really specific reason to try and bring them on board.

I think it’s great there’s so many female showrunners out there and more and more female producers, development executives and network heads. You have to see it as an individual and you have to work so hard and show them that your work is so great. People want to hire the people with the best script and have them in their room. Sure, the bias is probably going to be to hire the guy, so sometimes yours needs to be better.

We can’t be shy and retiring. You have to get out there. You have to network. You have to meet the people because if they know you, if they’ve met you, if they get along with you and feel like you’d be a good asset in a room, then they’ll be more likely to hire you. Naturally a lot of us are a little more shy and retiring or polite and less go-gettery. We can have this timid language of apologizing and using these qualified words, but it seems like we really have to embrace ourselves and our place in the world and not sit around demanding someone give it to us. We have to take it. We have made massive strides and we’ll continue to do it. I think one of the best things for women to do is to support and help champion other women and minorities.

TD: As an invisible minority myself, a bunch of the barriers that exist for minorities begin even before you’re a teenager, when you’re being told what you can and can’t do, and you’re looking at the world and seeing what your people can and can’t do according to who is doing that. I grew up not seeing any aboriginal filmmakers, I didn’t see any aboriginal people on TV and I didn’t see any aboriginal stories on TV. So as far as I was concerned that didn’t happen. I was told by many people, with my best interest in mind, ‘Don’t waste your time. That’ll never happen.’ That messaging has to change and has to stop. I hope that as more and more role models come out of this business who are of minority culture, that it will encourage coming generations to see that ‘Hey! He does it and she does it. We’re the same color and he’s doing it, so why can’t I?’

CK: I will add that the more we see minority stories in film and television and the more people respond to them, the more we can see that they have universal appeal. There have been a million television and film productions about minority people and we all go see it. Why did the film Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) about the Quebec medical system win an Oscar? It’s a very specific system but people understood the universality of it. So if we keep making stories about minorities on screen–and people see themselves represented and see people of minority working on them–the more it becomes normal.

1. 2016 CSA Nominations include Best Comedy Series, Best Direction in a Comedy Series, Best Writing in a Comedy Series and Best Actress in a Comedy Series for Brittany LeBorgne.

Thoughts? Comments? Sound off below! Read more from our Women Behind Canadian TV series here.

Mohawk Girls will return for Season 4 in Fall 2016 to APTN.