Hot Docs ’22: “Beautiful Scars” tackles art, family trauma and identity

Most of us take certain core things about ourselves for granted, but for some, even such fundamental elements of our identity as knowing where we come from can be fraught with ...
May 6, 2022

Most of us take certain core things about ourselves for granted, but for some, even such fundamental elements of our identity as knowing where we come from can be fraught with complications. Take, for instance, the case of Tom Wilson, the subject of the new documentary Beautiful Scars, who spent decades touring the world as a successful musician before learning late in life about his true, Indigenous origins.

Based on Wilson’s memoir of the same name, Beautiful Scars explores the Canadian musician’s discovery of his Mohawk heritage and the web of family secrets that he had unwittingly been at the center of since his childhood — including the revelation that his real mother, Janey, had been a part of his life for years without him realizing who she really was.

Beautiful Scars was produced by Corey Russell and Cream Films and directed by Shane Belcourt, the son of Métis rights leader Tony Belcourt. Tasked with translating a very personal story about family, identity and Canada’s Indigenous community into a cohesive film, Belcourt says that one of his primary challenges was figuring out how much of the story should focus on Wilson and his mother, and how much on the historical context around their story.

“We spent a lot of time in the edit trying to get that balance right,” Belcourt tells Realscreen. “We went down the path of the Sixties Scoop, and we had archival footage, residential schools, [et cetera]. And then we just thought, if people need to do a sidebar investigation of what these things are, they can do that outside of this film. Let’s just really be with Tom, and the relationship of Tom and Janey, and let’s let that be our guide. That’s the thing that we really want you to spend time with.”

Realscreen spoke to Belcourt (pictured below, left), Tom Wilson (center) and producer and Cream Films EVP Corey Russell (right) ahead of the world premiere of Beautiful Scars at Hot Docs 2022.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.beautiful scars_team

How did the project get started?

Corey Russell: Tom’s book was given to me by a friend, and I thought the stranger-than-fiction story of Tom’s life and how he learned the truth about his family would make a great film. His journey of self-discovery was compelling and unique, especially given his profession and talent as an artist.

Shane Belcourt: It was one of those things where it’s like, do we run from the book, or do we embrace the book? Do we try to do something completely different as a standalone? But then there’s all these plot points in the book that it’s just hard not to want to have an audience experience [it] who hasn’t read the book. There’s a mystery that’s right there in the book, the first chapter, and we use it in the film too[:] that part where [Tom's adopted] mother Bunny says, “There’s secrets about you that I’ll take to the grave.” And if any kid hears that, you’re like, “What secret?”

I think the book was the basis of me beginning to have an ability to have a conversation with Tom about his life… And Tom, as you saw in the film and if you know him a little bit in real life, he is such a presence on screen. I said, why don’t we just set up a scenario where you could read a little bit from the book, you could say something in the moment, and we might use it. So we actually had him read, I think it was 12 excerpts from the book, and we only use, if I remember it correctly, four… So it began with the book, we abandoned the book, and then we returned to the book.

Tom, how did it feel for you to basically adapt your own book into a documentary? 

Tom Wilson: To be quite honest with you it was a freefall, and it was a giant step forward personally for my mother and I. It wasn’t my film, except that it’s my story; I didn’t guide the direction of the film. I got a fantastic director, and an Indigenous director, who would be sensitive to the idea of the loss of identity through colonialism, through the loss of culture and color and language and music. And what that situation looks like to somebody outside of the Indigenous world would have been a different experience.

So Shane Belcourt, I trusted him completely. In the beginning he came to me when we were starting to think about shooting the film, before COVID by the way, and said, “Okay, this is great, I’m gonna do a bunch of interviews with you, it’d be great to interview you with your mom…” And I said, “My mom’s not going to be interviewed, we’re not doing that. You’re just gonna have to have me.” And throughout the process, as my mother started to get information about the film, I was out driving her to the grocery store and I said, “Hey, you know, they’d really like to have you in this movie that they’re making about the book,” and she decided that she would do it.

And so the big revelation, the big movement in this is that my mother and I got to speak more freely to the camera, and more freely to one another, than we have in 62 years… we’ve really made a lot of inroads with one another that otherwise we might not have gotten to. We shared information that we may not have shared with one another. It was a liberating experience for both of us.

What kinds of challenges did you face during the production process, pandemic-related or otherwise?

CR: It was a challenge for us because Tom spends a lot of time taking care of his mother during the pandemic, so for her safety he was careful not to bring extra people around. As for the crew, fortunately, Cream has a robust production slate and fine-tuned COVID protocols, all of which were applied on this shoot.

The film deals with very personal issues related to Tom’s family, but it’s also about an artist who has seen success and is a celebrity in a lot of ways. Shane, how much effort did you put into balancing those aspects, to give context to Tom’s life and career within the broader story? Because it’s not a music documentary, but rather a documentary about someone who happens to be a musician. 

SB: That’s exactly it. To be honest, that was a really hard balance[:] is this a rock doc about a guy who has a kind of crazy life story? Or, as you just said, the inversion of that? And to be honest, we did a cut that was a rock doc, with a little bit of a side story like, “Crazy family, huh?” We tried it, the first editor Marc Ricciardelli and myself, and we put a cut together, we were very excited about it at that time. We presented it to Tom, [and] to his credit he was like, “Shane, this is a departure from what we said we were going to do, which was no rock doc.” [...] So it was great [that] we got a chance to feel what it would be like to have a rock doc, and then we all thought, nah, this isn’t what we want out of this. There’s a greater emotional impact to [be had here].

What was your approach when it came to making a film that touches on generational trauma? How much effort was put into making everyone feel safe and cared for in that environment?

SB: Growing up in an Indigenous household, being around Indigenous artists and storytellers and the politics of Indigenous life my entire life, it just gives you a kind of an understanding of where [Tom's] coming from and where his family’s coming from — there’s quite a lot of generous trust, as you’d expect of any group of people who come from similar backgrounds. So [when it came to getting Janey involved], that opens the door to the possibility of a conversation: “Hey, I’m doing this documentary, if you’d like to be on camera, Janey, I would love for you to do that.”

The things that my dad has done in his life as an Indigenous rights leader gives a certain leeway to people having sort of a trust [in me]. It’s the weight of the family name, to do right by people. I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, as filmmakers, but it’s something that I definitely hold dear to my heart, the way I grew up. So I think that opens the door.

Being an artist yourself, Tom, what was the process like of working with Shane and the rest of the team on something that is still so personal to you, your family and your mother? 

TW: I was trying to protect my mother, really, from the process. And Shane was somebody that was brought on because he understands, you know. His father was basically in there swinging every day in Ottawa for Métis rights. He was a guy that understands the struggle, the struggle of fighting the residue of colonialism, and the colonialism that is still playing out in this country. So without making too fine a point of that in the movie, it does tell that story [of] the effects of colonialism on two people, and also on my kids, on my family, [and] how that just keeps going, man.

Just the idea of not having [an] identity and not knowing who you are — the thought of an 18-year-old girl in a hospital having a baby, and the baby being taken away from her immediately, and her being injected and being knocked out. This is part of what I’m talking about, is that I never heard that story. I didn’t know that Janey and I weren’t given that moment as mother and child after I was born. I was whisked away, she looked up at a clock and saw that it was like five or ten after eight and figured I was born at eight o’clock, and then she was knocked out. She woke up a day later, walking the halls of St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton, looking in the nursery wondering what baby she had, not knowing if I was a boy or a girl.

So what effect does that have on a woman for her entire life, living with that experience from the age of 18? Being manipulated that way, and not being considered or regarded and respected? That’s a story that still breaks my heart — it’s a story that I’m now writing for my second book.

Was there anything in particular that you were hoping audiences would take from the film?

TW: The film is an extension of the book. It’s telling the story now on the big screen and on the TV screen. My work for the last eight years has been redefined. I paint now, I create art now to honor the Mohawk culture, honor that world… I’m infusing my identity into my work, really. And this is the first time I’ve actually said this — I actually just figured it out, what it is I’m doing. I’m infusing my identity into my creative work so that I can open up the door of possibility for other people to be able to tell their stories, or for people to be able to understand the Indigenous world here in North America and in Canada, in my own way. I can only tell one story, and I’m gonna keep telling it.

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