Award-winning filmmaker shares struggles of a young Haitian adopted into an Indigenous family in Canada

‘So many people have been moved by Josiah’s story,’ says director Yasmine Mathurin

‘So many people have been moved by Josiah’s story,’ says director Yasmine Mathurin

Filmmaker Yasmine Mathurin (Elana Emer)

In the award-winning documentary, One of Ours, we meet Josiah Wilson who was adopted as a baby in Haiti and raised in an Indigenous family in Calgary, Alberta. In 2016, at 21, Josiah was refused the right to play in an Indigenous basketball tournament and his experience made the news. In the aftermath of this hurtful rejection, Josiah was left to examine his identity, his shaken sense of belonging and the complex relationships he has with his family and community.

Documentary filmmaker Yasmine Mathurin spent five years documenting the story of a family she had known during her teenage years living in Calgary. As a Black filmmaker making her first feature-length documentary project — and as a friend of the Wilson family — she wanted to ask the right questions about anti-Black racism, Indigeneity and identity. 

How did your personal experiences as a Black filmmaker help you tell this story?

Yasmine Mathurin: One of Ours is an exploration of belonging, Blackness and memory. My curiosity around these topics started in my childhood. I spent my early childhood in Haiti where I learned about Haitian history, from the genocide of the Tainos and Arawak who were the Indigenous people of Ayiti (Haiti), then the slave rebellion which made Haiti the first independent Black republic. 

Politics and conversations around race were commonplace at my own family's dinner table. To know Haitian history is to also know about the reality of the white saviour complex, in light of decades of ongoing intervention from the US, Canada and the UN. Even as a young person, as I was learning about the story of Indigenous folks in Canada, I always took it in with a lot of skepticism. 

This is the context that grounded my instincts and helped anchor me, as I went on the journey of making One of Ours.

What makes the Wilson family so unique as film subjects?

YM: What made the Wilson family so unique to me was not only their story and how they came to be but it was also how they each offered a slightly different take on this question of belonging.

Every family member's identity was different from the other yet the love they had for each other was palpable. It was a rainbow of identities united in their struggle and the love they had for each other. 

What did you learn about 'belonging' from this family?

YM: Through the Wilson family, I learned that belonging is a multi-layered experience and that it is not static. From the families that we're born into, the cultures we're part of, the community ties we have can break, stretch and change over time and as such our sense of selves and our connection evolves accordingly. 

I was reminded that belonging is also an active two-way conversation between community and our own sense of self. I learned so much about the Heiltsuk way of belonging through their way of fighting for their sovereignty and how they affirmed Josiah's connection to them. It was a beautiful honour to be able to bear witness to this while making the film.

What were the challenges in making this film? 

YM: This was my first film and my first feature, and it felt like I could not afford to fail.  I was learning while doing and my learning curve was more of a cliff than a steady incline. I wanted to do right by the participants of my film, to do right by the Heiltsuk community and do right by Haitian folks and Black folks. 

I wanted to also be true to myself. There aren't that many people who look like me that get to do this work. If I get this wrong, it will affect not only the people I'm making the film about, but their communities. At times this pressure stifled my creative process, and drowned out my desire to still feel free and playful while making this film. But strangely, I think this same pressure  also drove me to push through and move with as much care as I could along the way, even when everything felt impossible. 

When I decided to make One Of Ours, I never could've predicted that I would be editing it in a global pandemic, in a surge of anti-Black violence and global systemic uproar. The summer of 2020 was a time when a global pandemic started rocking our lives and this created many challenges for filmmakers. It seemed as though institutions and businesses everywhere were issuing statements of intent to fight (anti-Black) racism and decolonize their practices. As the conversation around anti-discrimination and Indigeneity got louder, it affirmed not only the importance of telling this story but also the importance of my voice as a Haitian filmmaker doing this work right now.

To tell a story about healing, I had to dig inside myself and be willing to confront the same questions I was asking of subjects in my film. I wanted to tell a story that felt truthful and the only way to do so was to really sit with that internally for myself. When it was all too much, I was able to borrow my community's belief in me to affirm my capacity to keep going. 

I felt the fear and chose to commit to do the best I can.

What has the response to One of Ours been?
YM: The response has been incredible! We won the Special Jury Prize at Hot Docs, as well as the Stand Out Film Award at the Regent Park Film Festival. We were also awarded the Ron Tibett Excellence Filmmaking award at the Indie Memphis film festival in the US. 

So many folks have been moved by Josiah and his family's story.

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