In 2014, at age 53, Tom Wilson, a singer-songwriter from Hamilton, Ontario, with a stack of gold records and stories aplenty, found out quite accidentally that he had been adopted. Soon afterward he learned that his biological parents were Mohawk from the Kahnawake community, just outside of Montreal.
For legions of fans familiar with Wilson’s story thus far—a precocious local teenage rocker grows up to found ’90s major-label alt-rock unit Junkhouse, battles various demons, gets sober, starts to paint, evolves into a troubadour of note in the acclaimed trio Blackie and the Rodeo Kings and the edgier collaborative Lee Harvey Osmond—this revelation marked a substantial shift in his personal narrative and in the subject matter of his creative work.
Wilson’s 2017 memoir “Beautiful Scars: Steeltown Secrets, Mohawk Skywalkers and the Road Home” (Doubleday Canada) became a best-seller in Canada. A new documentary, currently on Hot Docs’ Audience Top 20 list, continues his 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 annually offers financial support to three to five documentaries highlighting Canadian music’s role in the world or featuring international stories told from a Canadian perspective.
“The important work now is to keep telling this story to as many people as I can in as many mediums as I can — I’m honoring the Mohawk culture in my own way,” Wilson told Variety before 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 the parents of his friends, he recalls in the film, which traces his rock-n-roll years before digging into family lore. He grew up thinking of himself as a “big Irish guy” but always had questions. Bunny, who died in 2010 at age 96, would sometimes refer to “secrets” about him that she would take to her grave.
Then in 2015, Janie Lazare, a Mohawk woman Wilson had known from childhood as his cousin, revealed she was his birth mother and a cousin of Bunny. Eventually Wilson learned the identity of his birth father (who died in 1991) and of half-siblings, some of whom appear in the film.
“Throwing yourself on the bloody tracks of a documentary is, you know, well, I can get pretty paranoid about this film,” said Wilson in his distinctively subterranean baritone. “But at the same time, it opens up 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 personal becomes universal.
“Tom, who is an amazing raconteur, initially told me, ‘Janie’s not going to be a part of it’,” Belcourt said. “The moment we are in now is that Indigenous storytellers are able to offer the stories, and there are unspoken things that allow access.”
The film, which was originally intended to be anchored on Wilson’s monologue, became a dialogue with Janie. “That was the discovery within the filmmaking,” Belcourt continued. “It was personal for both: for the one who had to give up and watch from afar, and for the one who had to be isolated and find his way back.”
Wilson said Belcourt ended up being “a facilitator who brought my mother and I closer together in ways that we didn’t see coming. Subjects were talked about that are not necessarily in the movie, but that never would have happened without the movie.
“Janie and I are the last people standing in this story. It is our job to try and tell the truth—our version of the truth, what we feel.
“This is not the last story,” Wilson added. “Hopefully it will allow people in the kitchen, maybe even their work places, to speak freely. Our greatest job as storytellers is to open up 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 strand and, like most 2022 Hot Docs titles, is available for industry passholder to stream on the Doc Shop until May 31.