2 min

Chronicling an extraordinary life

The history of Tom Chomont and NYC

Credit: Shawn Scallen

Tom, the latest offering by acclaimed Toronto filmmaker and video artist Mike Hoolboom (Frank’s Cock, Panic Bodies), is unconventional by documentary standards.

In a style he calls “cinema déjà vu or déjà voodoo,” Hoolboom uses archival footage, found pictures, home movies, photos and new video to tell the story of his friend Tom Chomont, an HIV- positive photographer and filmmaker in New York City. The result is an extraordinary and mesmerizing tribute to a rich and varied life and a moving portrayal of grief and love.

Shot over several years, Hoolboom says the documentary allowed him to connect with a longtime friend. “I wanted to make this when I realized that Tom was doing so poorly. He already had Parkinson’s, then he became HIV-positive. Things looked really bad in terms of Tom’s survival. So the film was made in a sense for very sentimental reasons. I wasn’t sure how long Tom had, so I wanted to be there to spend time with him.”

Chomont’s fascinating life is revealed through storytelling and new video, along with clips from some of Chomont’s own films (Phases Of The Moon, Sadistic Self Portrait, Head Shot), as he recounts tales of his brother’s life and death, his gangster father, his mother’s infanticide and his experiences with SM. That story is intercut with gorgeous, dream-like archival and found footage of New York City.

“I had collected all these pictures of New York, things that related to Tom’s life,” Hoolboom says. “For instance, immigrants arriving at Ellis Island. That was how Tom’s father came to America. So I used those pictures to tell a part of New York’s history that’s also Tom’s history. The footage of the repeated destruction and renewal of New York is also part of Tom’s story. It’s an implicit metaphor for Tom’s personality. He is son, brother, filmmaker, drag queen, SM top, SM bottom. In his constant reinvention, he has a kinship to his city.”

An awesomely prolific artist, Hoolboom’s extraordinary body of work includes 40 films, as well as essays and books. In the past he’s said his own HIV-positive diagnosis was responsible for his creative drive. But now, he says, his feelings about his artistic process have changed. His desire is to go deeper, even if that means completing less work.

“With my earlier work, a bunch of stuff came out that wasn’t as digested or as ready as it could be. Time removes the blind spots. Time gives you the sense of what you left out, or got wrong. I feel plagued by that. Obviously you need the focus to make the work, but when it’s done you see what that focus has cost.

“With Tom, I worried that finishing it would be some sort of resolution or elegy, or wrapping up the business of Tom’s life, as though I was saying, ‘Okay, here it is, it’s done, now you can die.’ Tom is continuing to have amazing adventures and I have this nagging feeling that maybe I should still be there filming it.”

Tom screens Thu, Sep 12 at 9:15pm and Fri, Sep 13 at 3pm at the Royal Ontario Museum, 100 Queen’s Park Circle. Single tickets are available for $13.75 in person only at the box office, in the Eaton Centre, level one at Dundas St. Same day tickets can be purchased at the cinema box office one hour before the screening for $14.