|Once My Mother, Helen and Sophia Turkiewicz |
photo Mayu Kanamori
When asked what inspired her debut documentary, Turkiewicz jokes, “Well, I keep making the same story.” An early graduate from the Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Turkiewicz initially attempted to tell her mother’s tale through an unfinished student documentary in 1976. Her first major work, the 30-minute Letters From Poland (1978) was a drama loosely based on her mother’s experiences as a refugee in post-war Australia. Most famously, she made another Polish refugee story in 1984, with the award-winning feature Silver City.
“In a way I see this film as a companion piece to Silver City,” Turkiewicz explains. “But I think the impulse behind making Once My Mother as a documentary was finally getting the story right. While I was lucky to have the opportunity to make Silver City, it’s a pretty glossy account of the real story. I was always aware of that and felt it wasn’t quite the authentic truth of my mother’s real experience.”
|Once My Mother, Helen with newborn Sophia in Lusaka refugee camp|
courtesy the artist
Once My Mother traces this story through interviews with Helen shot for the unfinished student film in 1976, along with more contemporary interactions filmed as Helen’s memories were slowly being eroded by Alzheimer’s before her death in 2010. A wealth of archival material from Polish, Russian and British sources fills out the historical backdrop.
This is anything but dry history however. Nor is it a straightforward recounting of Helen’s life. “It was only through the process of making the film that I started to realise that it was as much about me and my relationship with my mother as it was about her,” Turkiewicz says of her decision to return to her mother’s experiences. “What I understood, ultimately, was that my impulse behind returning to this story was to try and nut out my complicated relationship with my mother. So I had to be a character in the film as well.”
|Once My Mother, Helen and Sophia Turkiewicz|
courtesy the artist
Although the film’s limited means contributed to its pleasingly intimate feel, Turkiewicz would have liked greater resources with which to realise her directorial vision. “I only ever had one day with a professional cinematographer,” Turkiewicz comments ruefully. “If we’d actually got the money and then made this doco, it would have had a completely different look and that’s really one of my slight disappointments—that the production values are not what I would have wanted for this story. It just grew through grabbing any opportunities we could along the way and cobbling it all together.”
As associate producer Bob Connolly explained in a speech before a private screening of the film last year, Once My Mother was rejected by both SBS and the ABC when the filmmakers sought a pre-sale (see On the Dox, RT118). This rendered the makers ineligible for backing from most government bodies. They were also rejected by Screen Australia’s Signature Fund, the only funding program that does not require a pre-sale. Her mother’s rapidly failing health forced Turkiewicz to push ahead and piece the film together over five years with virtually no budget. With the film almost completed, Screen Australia finally came on board and the ABC followed suit with some funds to make a 50-minute television version.
Turkiewicz concurs with Connolly’s criticism of structures which effectively prevent any documentary not tailored to broadcast schedules from receiving funds. But she also sees a deeper problem related to distribution. “There are fantastic feature-length documentaries being made all around the world and they’re not reaching our television screens or cinemas. I don’t think it’s just Australia—it’s a worldwide problem.”
Once My Mother is a perfect illustration of Turkiewicz’s and Connolly’s points—a beautifully moving, essayist documentary that cannot be neatly placed in a television slot and consequently nearly didn’t get made. But as well as being emotionally affecting, this is also a film that speaks to contemporary events here in Australia. “When you look at that whole phenomenon of post-war migration to Australia, it came from government policy, leadership and education. In the course of less than a decade Australia was absolutely transformed—and what a gift those people have made to the dynamic, multicultural and sophisticated society we now have. I want my film to be part of this conversation. I’m driven to despair seeing what is happening to refugees now,” Turkiewicz says forcefully.
As well as her mother’s contribution to Australia, Turkiewicz herself is part of the ongoing refugee story, even if our broadcasters showed little interest in what she had to offer. As always, it seems, the best in our culture has to develop regardless of those in positions of power.
Once My Mother, director Sophia Turkiewicz, producer Rod Freeman, Australia, 2013, www.oncemymother.com
Once My Mother is screening nationally in cinemas.
RealTime issue #122 Aug-Sept 2014 pg. web
© Dan Edwards; for permission to reproduce apply to email@example.com