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Hamilton artist Tom Wilson hopes new film will help put ‘Mohawk culture into the light where it belongs’

Hamilton’s enormous impact on artist and musician Tom Wilson’s life has been reflected in everything he has done over the last several decades.

Beautiful Scars, a documentary based on Wilson’s bestselling memoir of the same name, is no different. It’s set to have its first screening at the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on May 2 at 5:15 p.m. ET at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2 in Toronto. 

Wilson — who grew up in “a blue-collar Hamilton neighbourhood filled with factory workers and nuclear families,” as the film describes — says the city has helped shaped him into the artist he is today, one dedicated to honouring his culture through his work.

“Hamilton is a giant part of my life. It’s where I grew up, so as somebody who is working in his life to be an artist, it had a massive influence on me,” Wilson told CBC Hamilton.

“Not only the people, but the streets, the characters, the stories that went on here, [they] are all the stories that I based my first 53 years of creating art and literature and music…

“Now my job, as someone who’s working to be an artist, is to put the Mohawk culture into the light where it belongs, and to also be able to take on Indigenous issues that are important for the world to be aware of through my art,” he added.

‘New truths were able to come out’

The documentary delves into Wilson’s life-long quest to find himself and ultimately uncover his true identity as a Mohawk man.

Like his book, it shares truths about Wilson’s biological family and Indigenous heritage, tracing back to unravel his family history and, eventually, follow him to the Mohawk Nation of Kahnawà:ke, just south of Montreal, where he meets for the first time the birth family that didn’t know he existed. 

Wilson says his hometown has helped shaped him into the artist he is today. (Cream Films)

Wilson says Shane Belcourt, the two-time Canadian Screen Awards-nominated Métis director, worked as a facilitator to develop a relationship with his mother that otherwise wouldn’t have happened.

“Having a Métis director who has an understanding of the Indigenous world, and of the struggles of the Indigenous world, was essential,” Wilson says.

“My mother and I had conversations and new truths were able to come out that otherwise wouldn’t have come out the same way, would have come out awkwardly, would have come out guarded.” 

Wilson is seen here working on one of his art creations. (Cream Films)

“But if you find the right person to direct a movie, who can also work as a therapist, who also has their heart in the right place, it’s amazing how the truth can come out. And I really feel that if nothing else, we were able to tell a truth in this movie that, in our own way, we were able to crush the spine of colonialism for an hour and a half,” he added. 

‘An unbelievable storyteller’

Belcourt first heard Wilson in the ’90s when “it was impossible to escape the sound of Junkhouse [a band Wilson formed in 1989] and the hits that they had.”

He continued to follow the “amazing artist’s” career in the 2000s with Blackie and the Rodeo Kings.

“I then had a chance to read his book, Beautiful Scars, which the movie is sort of building out of, I was just transported into an unbelievable storyteller, but most importantly, it’s a storyteller who has a story about his Indigenous life, a gentleman who’s going about reclaiming his Indigenous family and community in such an authentic and real and heartbreaking and true way that I just thought, ‘OK, I would just love to meet Tom and to talk about this, about the story,'” Belcourt said, in an interview with CBC Hamilton.

“He was a heart-on-the-sleeve, honest, truth-telling type, which is my favourite, and we got along and I thought, ‘Well, if he and I can have a conversation just about our creativity, identity and could somehow find a way to get that on screen, I think we’re going to have something that at least I would like to watch.'”

Film shot almost entirely in Hamilton

Belcourt says all of the film was shot in Hamilton, except for the trip to Kahnawà:ke that was central to Wilson’s story.

Of the film, Wilson said “having a Métis director who has an understanding of the Indigenous world and of the struggles of the Indigenous world, was essential.” (Cream Films)

But he says Beautiful Scars has messages for people everywhere.

“One of the key things with any kind of art is you want it to be so personal and so individual that somehow the audience is allowed to get transported into a kind of universal,” he said.

“So, what I hope the audience has a chance to do is to really spend time with Tom and his family, and see a family being able to face heartache and trauma and just really find truth. 

“When families can get together and face down hard truths, they have a chance to find a way towards a new understanding of love in each other and a new possibility for happiness in a way that they wouldn’t otherwise have if they kept it buried. So, I think that’s a universal thing in this film,” Belcourt added.

Wilson says his job is to put the Mohawk culture into the light where it belongs. (Cream Films)

According to the film’s producers — Cream Films — Beautiful Scars blends a hybrid of visual styles, animation and archival photos. The soundtrack pulls from Wilson’s extensive catalogue.

“With Shane at the helm and our incredible access to Tom, who’s a naturally gifted storyteller, we tell a layered, nuanced story,” said Corey Russell, executive vice president of Cream Films. “Beautiful Scars is Tom’s painstakingly told journey about the scars that both hurt us and make us who we are.”

Hamilton work includes raising funds for Indigenous scholarship 

Wilson is a busy man. In addition to the film’s release, he also released a new song with another Hamilton-based artist, Iskwē, on April 27 and is organizing two evenings of music at McMaster University at the end of May in support of the The Tom Wilson Indigenous Scholarship Award in honour of Bunny Wilson.

Wilson launched the scholarship in 2020 “to help bring honour, love, respect and shine a light back on the culture I have been introduced to later in life, and to honour the charitable nature that Bunny Wilson who raised me embodied throughout her life.”

The award will support first-year Indigenous students, coming from an Ontario secondary school, completing an undergraduate program at McMaster.

Wilson says he is hoping to announce the first scholarship recipients this summer.

It is “concrete work,” along with truth-telling, art and music, that Wilson says is core to his life now. 

“That’s the work that I should be doing in my life, guaranteeing that an Indigenous child who wants to graduate from university can become a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer,” Wilson said.

Unreserved40:11How a fateful limo ride led Tom Wilson to his Mohawk roots

Tom Wilson is a Canadian music icon with bands Blackie and the Rodeo Kings, Junkhouse and now, as Lee Harvey Osmond. But uncovering a web of family secrets set him off on a lifelong journey to reconnect with his identity. 40:11

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