ONCE MY MOTHER
AUSTRALIA 75 MIN
What does it take to survive? What will it take to forgive? When Australian filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz was seven years old, her Polish mother, Helen, abandoned her in an Adelaide orphanage. Sophia never forgot this maternal act of betrayal. Now in middle age, as Sophia examines her troubled relationship with Helen, she discovers the story behind Helen’s miraculous wartime escape from a Siberian gulag, her subsequent survival against the odds and the truth about an historic betrayal involving Stalin and the Allies. With Helen sliding into dementia, Sophia must confront her own demons. Did she ever truly know this woman who became her mother? Does she have it in her heart to forgive her? And is it too late?
Born in a Polish refugee camp, Sophia was a teacher before entering the Australian Film, Television & Radio School. Her 1984 feature film SILVER CITY, won 3 AFI Awards and Best Film at the Sydney Film Critics Awards. Sophia’s career was in directing drama and lecturing in Directing before making ONCE MY MOTHER, her first documentary.
- Adelaide Film Festival, Australia 2013 — Audience Award & Canberra International Film Festival
- Canberra, Australia 2013 — Audience Award
- Festival International De Programmes Audiovisual (FIPA), France 2014
- Sydney Film Festival, Australia 2014
- Krakow Film Festival, Poland 2014 — Audience Award
- Rhode Island International Film Festival, Rhode Island 2014
- Australian Directors Guild Awards, Australia 2014 — Best Feature Documentary
- ATOM Awards, Australia 2014 — Best Documentary Biography
- Australian Academy of Cinema & Television Arts, Australia 2014 — Best Feature Documentary & Best Sound Nominations
- Valladolid International Film Festival, Spain 2014 — Time of History Award
- Ann Arbor Polish Film Festival, USA 2014 — Best Documentary
- 'Cinema With A Soul', Poland 2014 — Special Prize
- Australian Screen Music Awards 2014 — Best Music in a Documentary
- Australian Screen Editors Awards 2014 (Best Editing in a Feature Documentary
- Edmonton International Film Festival, Canada 2014
- Kansas International Film Festival, USA 2014
- Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, USA 2014
- Prowincjonalia Film Festival, Poland 2015 — Special Award
- Tiburon International Film Festival, USA 2015 — Best Documentary
- Vilnius International Film Festival, Lithuania 2015
- Festival Regards d’Ailleurs, France 2015
ONCE MY MOTHER is the story of two films – the one I started in 1976 and never finished and the one I’ve made now. The story begins in 1976 when I was a film school student and shot 16mm black and white footage of my mother and family, intending to make a documentary. But the footage was never edited. Looking back, I lacked the skill, the maturity and the perspective to do her story justice. The rushes lay in film cans in my hot attic cupboard for over thirty years. Occasionally, I’d come across them and I’d think that I should check out those rushes. But it all seemed too hard.
Then in 2008, I finally had a reason to dig out the footage. I’d been watching my mother declining into dementia over several years and I realized that she was forgetting not only the stories of her life, but also who her family was, including me. Suddenly, it became important to see what was in those cans. It seems now like they’d been lying there for years in that dark cupboard, waiting until I was ready.
What a surprise it was to see my mother’s younger self, aged in her early fifties in 1976, come to life before my eyes. After years of seeing her lost and confused, I’d myself forgotten what she had once been like. The footage revealed the person she’d once been. Despite all the tragic events of her life, I primarily remember that she had a playful way of looking at the world. This positive quality may well have been important in keeping her alive during those early years of surviving on the streets and in a Soviet labour camp.
I realized then that I had to finish this story of my mother’s life. I started filming again, with whatever resources I could find. Her memory was entirely unreliable. At times she was remarkably lucid. At others, she had no memory of what had happened in her life.
I knew I was in a race against time. So I started shooting whatever I could with whatever resources I could find. These usually involved non-professional equipment and people so that at least I had a record of her declining years and her remaining memories.
Then in 2007, I was invited to Poland to screen my feature film, Silver City, at the Wroclaw Film Festival as part of a retrospective of the work of Polish/Australian actor Gosia Dobrowolska. I took the opportunity to search for my mother’s village in what had once been eastern Poland and was now part of Ukraine. Eventually, I located Oleszow (now Oleshiv), just east of what had been the regional town of Stanislawow (now Ivano Frankivsk). With my husband Stephen in tow as cameraman, we filmed my arrival in the village, meeting various locals and discovering my mother’s old family home.
This first trip to Oleshiv affected me profoundly. Before then, my sense of who I was occurred somehow in a vacuum. I had no family connection to any past generation beyond that of my mother. I had a stepfather and two brothers in Australia but there were no links back beyond this one generation. There were no surviving aunts or uncles, no nieces or nephews, no grandparents in our family. When my mother spoke of her own mother, it never occurred to me she was speaking about a woman who was my grandmother. I’d never even called her my ‘grandmother’ – it was always ‘your mother’ when we discussed her. Now here I was in the village, tramping through the fields and along dirt tracks that my relations had also walked along. They suddenly became real. I could imagine them. They were no longer abstract ideas. For the first time I understood what it feels like to have a generational past.
I was hoping to find a direct link to blood relatives but that didn’t happen. I found a number of indirect links that let me put parts of my family jigsaw together. And I came back to Australia knowing that I had to make the film - somehow.
My producer, Rod Freedman, came on board in 2010. Rod was interested in my story because there were strong resonances in his own family history. Rod’s Jewish grandparents had migrated in the early 1900’s from Lithuania to South Africa and in 1997, he made UNCLE CHATZKEL, a personal documentary about his 93 year old Lithuanian great uncle.
The story of ONCE MY MOTHER has relevance for the Jewish community because twenty per cent of the Poles deported to the USSR were Jewish. Stalin was not anti-Semitic in the way Hitler was, Stalin was anti-Polish. The deportations were organized to get rid of troublesome groups such as political elites, the intelligentsia and community leaders. If you happened to fall into one of these categories, and were also Jewish, you were deported.
Stalin’s strategy was to deport entire families – if you were a troublemaker that meant that your whole family couldn’t be trusted. But as well as deportations of organized groups, huge numbers of people were randomly deported. If the Soviet police came to collect a family who had fled, they were just as likely to pick whoever happened to be next door or walking along the street. Like my mother, tens of thousands of people ended up in Siberia without any idea why they were there.
Rod and I began working together by filming my mother in her old aged home in Adelaide. With no funding, but now with a mass of unedited footage, we held a fundraiser at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation and raised enough money to edit a rough cut of the story.
We were lucky to discover the Kresy Siberia Foundation who agreed to auspice tax-deductible donations for the project. KSF was created in 2001 to ‘research, record and remember’ the experiences of Polish families swept up in the deportations to Siberia. Rod and I filmed survivor interviews of Poles living in Australia for the Kresy Siberia Virtual Museum. (http://kresy-siberia.org/muzeum). It was so moving to hear the personal stories of what had happened to so many other Poles – each story echoing my mother’s story and each just as tragic in its own way.
I was fortunate to find an oral history recording that my mother had done for the National Library of Australia and have used that in the film to voice part of her story.
In 2012, Rod and I were invited to be on the jury at the Gdynia Film Festival in Poland. This was a great opportunity to return to shoot further material. In Warsaw, we enlisted a young crew to shoot various recreations, wanting to lift the film out of a straight, documentary format. Then we travelled to Ukraine to shoot in and around my mother’s village, Oleshiv. With the help of our translator, Mariyka, a local from the next village of Ostrynia, we spent ten days shooting more recreations and other material. We found a young village girl to play ‘Young Helen’ and received warm hospitality from local families.
In late 2012, we finally received funding from Screen Australia’s prestigious Signature Docs program and raised the rest of the budget. Thinking back, it was fortunate that the film took so long to make. If I’d told this story when I was younger, I wouldn’t have been able to do it justice. And before the early 90’s there were serious obstacles in finding any historical information in communist countries. It was only with the fall of communism that the archives finally opened. So by the time I got serious, information was becoming available - if you knew where to look.
I wanted the focus of my story to be on the ordinary people who experienced the events of the war. I recount the broad military story, but it’s the civilian experience that most interests me. A shocking fact is that while the total military losses of World War II are estimated at 14 million, total civilian losses are estimated at around 27 million. My mother was just one of millions of people whose lives were torn apart.
The film is also a story about refugees and their resilience, fortitude and survival.
My mother Helen and I, were part of the huge wave of refugees who arrived in Australia after World War Two. Despite some fear and resistance, we were welcomed. From refugees we quickly turned into productive citizens and helped transform Australia into a dynamic, multicultural society. How different it is for today’s refugees, with Government policies that fuel people’s fears and generate mean-spiritedness, not open hearts. By making the contrast between ‘then’ and ‘now’, my film is a reminder that there is a different way to deal with the ‘refugee’ issue. I will be happy if my film contributes to the public conversation regarding refugees that continues to rage in Australia.
When I started on this film, I had planned to focus entirely on my mother’s life, with no intention of putting myself in the picture. It was only gradually that I realized that I had to be part of this story. As I say in the film, I had ‘plundered’ my mother’s life to make various fictional films in my career as a drama director. Now that I was making my first documentary about the ‘truth’ of my mother’s life, I realized I had to be as honest with myself. In that sense, ONCE MY MOTHER is a story about mothers and daughters, about parents and children. I hope it will prompt people to ask questions of their own parents and record their stories before it’s too late. I feel fortunate that I can pass something on to my son so that he and his future children will have a record of the lives of their antecedents.
At its deepest level, I was interested in investigating that most primal of bonds, the parent-child relationship. Through tracking my own journey towards ‘forgiveness’, I hope that the story raises questions about what it is to be a parent, what it is to be a daughter or a son. How do we learn our roles? What happens when a parent has no template for how to be a parent? How do our formative years affect our roles as parents? What happens when roles are reversed and the child becomes the carer?
What inspired me to tell this story was that I wanted my mother’s life to matter. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to record her life and discover her true story. She was an ordinary person who was swept up in extraordinary events, a pawn in a political game. I hope ONCE MY MOTHER helps to place a forgotten chapter of World War Two history on record and to honour the lives of the Poles who went through the same horrific experiences as my mother once did.
Main Competition 2015