You expected to be only a minor on-screen player in Once My Mother. Why did your role grow and how difficult was it to be frank about your feelings?
When I came to grips with what the story was really about and why I wanted to tell it, I realised I was trying to unravel and make sense of both my mother’s and my own history – and also my need for reconciliation and understanding of the complex relationship we had. When I saw it in that light, I knew I had to become a more central character and to treat myself in the same way I would any character in any story I was exploring. That theme of reconciliation and forgiveness informed all my choices of what I put in the film… There was an initial resistance on my part to be in the story but that was more to do with self-consciousness than self-revelation. I didn’t find that difficult at all.
You created “dramatic reconstructions” for the film. Why were these reconstructions necessary and under what circumstances were they filmed?
All the images are cobbled together from so many sources. I knew we would need visual material for my mother’s childhood and her adolescence and we filmed most of that during a second trip to her village Oleshiv, now part of the Ukraine. The whole village was so authentic it was like a film set. Rod [producer Rod Freedman] and I left flyers at a church service inviting people from the village to be extras. I had a boot full of old bits and pieces of clothing and handed them out and then we marched them around. I also had in mind getting material for the exodus to Siberia. It was hilarious because they had no idea what we were doing – but they were very accommodating. We weren’t filming entire scenes, just bits and pieces we would need to augment the archival footage. We didn’t have funding at that time and I knew that if and when we got money, a large chunk would go on archival footage. I also knew there would be limited archival footage available. Newsreel crews were recording what was happening in Western European but not Siberia.
Once My Mother is a very personal story but also epic because of its World War II setting. Why did Stalin’s treatment of the Polish people get no airtime as soon as the war ended, and when and why did this change?
The Allies knew of Stalin’s deportations and atrocities but when he joined them they had to turn a blind eye because they wouldn’t have won the war without him due to the manpower and military resources he had. Western history books concentrate almost entirely on Western Europe and the Nazi atrocities. It was politically incorrect to say ‘We won the war against one homicidal dictator with the help of another one’! It wasn’t until the fall of communism in the 1990s that archival material surfaced from all of the Eastern European former Soviet countries, but even now it is still barely known – and in recent years Putin (Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin) has done a lot to close these archival institutions down. My mother’s whole world opened up when I found the Kresy-Siberia Foundation, set up specifically to research, record and remember the Poles deported to Siberia. Rod and I have since recorded some of the survivor interviews for the foundation’s virtual museum (see here).
You’ve described your 1984 debut feature film Silver City as a glamorised version of your mother’s history. Would our society be different if cinemas screened more true stories like Once My Mother? Might our attitude to refugees be different for example?
Letters From Poland (a half-hour short), Silver City and now this film are all based on my mother’s story. At film school (the Australian Film, Television and Radio School) I wanted to belong to that world and I could hide behind fictional stories and pretend they had nothing to do with me. Silver City’s context had more truth than the fictional narrative – which I completely made up! – and I think Australians were very interested in where the Europeans living amongst them had come from. Australia’s post-war refugee program was very successful and it should be celebrated. When I came to make Once My Mother, I wanted to tell the story as truthfully as I could. When I go to see a film I want a feeling of authenticity. If it is a romanticised version you don’t have the same sort of visceral engagement that you do when you sense that something is true. I hope my film can draw some connections with present day refugees trying to come to Australia. They’re coming for the same reasons that we came. Confronting the big Hollywood marketing machine and getting our own stories into cinemas is a David and Goliath task. I don’t call blockbusters stories; I call them products. The impetus behind them is to make money not to tell stories that connect with the human experience.
Once My Mother opens in cinemas today. You can read our review of the film here. Watch the trailer below: