In 2014, at age 53, Tom Wilson, a singer-songwriter from Hamilton, Ontario with a stack of gold records and stories galore, discovered by chance that he had been adopted. Shortly after, he learns that his biological parents are Mohawks from the community of Kahnawake, just outside of Montreal.
For legions of fans familiar with Wilson’s story so far – a precocious local teen rocker grows up to found ’90s alt-rock unit Junkhouse, battles various demons, gets sober, starts painting, evolves into a troubadour of note in the acclaimed trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and the more avant-garde collaboration Lee Harvey Osmond – this revelation marked a substantial shift in his personal narrative and in the subject of his creative work.
Wilson’s 2017 memoir “Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home” (Doubleday Canada) became a bestseller in Canada. A new documentary, currently on Hot Docs’ Top 20 Audiences list, continues its journey.
Written and directed by Shane Belcourt, “Beautiful Scars” is produced by Corey Russell, Executive Vice President of Cream Films, and is a TVO Original made in partnership with APTN, with funding from the Hot Docs-Slaight Family Fund, which provides each year, support for three to five documentaries highlighting the role of Canadian music in the world or presenting international stories told from a Canadian perspective.
“The important job now is to continue to tell this story to as many people as possible in as many mediums as possible – I honor Mohawk culture in my own way,” Wilson said. Variety ahead of the film’s world premiere at Hot Docs.
Wilson was raised in Hamilton as the only child of Bunny and George Wilson, who were much older than his friends’ parents, he recalls in the film, which traces his rock-n-roll years before digging in family traditions. He grew up thinking of himself as a “great Irishman”, but he always had questions. Bunny, who died in 2010 aged 96, sometimes referred to “secrets” about her that she would take to her grave.
Then in 2015, Janie Lazare, a Mohawk who Wilson had known since childhood as his cousin, revealed that she was his birth mother and a cousin of Bunny. Eventually, Wilson learned the identity of his biological father (who died in 1991) and his half-siblings, some of whom appear in the film.
“To jump on the bloody trails of a documentary is, you know, well, I can get pretty paranoid about that movie,” Wilson said in his distinctly underground baritone. “But at the same time, it opens the door for this country and the world to better understand the effects of colonialism on identity.”
Belcourt, who comes from a mixed background and whose father, Tony Belcourt, is a well-known Métis rights leader and activist in Canada, said “Beautiful Scars” is one of those documentaries in which the staff becomes universal.
“Tom, who is an amazing storyteller, first told me, ‘Janie won’t be part of it,'” Belcourt said. “The moment we are in now is that Indigenous storytellers are able to offer the stories, and there are things left unsaid that allow access.
The film, which was originally to be anchored on Wilson’s monologue, became a dialogue with Janie. “It was the discovery in the cinema,” continued Belcourt. “It was personal for both: for the one who had to give up and watch from afar, and for the one who had to isolate themselves and find their way back.”
Wilson said Belcourt ended up being “an enabler who brought my mom and me together in a way we didn’t see coming. We talked about topics that aren’t necessarily in the movie, but that wouldn’t be never arrived without the film.
“Janie and I are the last people standing in this story. It’s our job to try to tell the truth, our version of the truth, how we feel.
“It’s not the last story,” Wilson added. “I hope this will allow people in the kitchen, maybe even in their workplace, to speak freely. Our biggest job as storytellers is to open the door to the next person and let them know they can tell their stories too.
“Beautiful Scars” had its world premiere in the Artscapes Stream and, like most Hot Docs 2022 titles, is available to Industry Pass holders on Doc Shop through May 31.