When Sophia Turkiewicz was seven, her Polish mother Helen gave her up to an orphanage. Sophia, now a filmmaker living in Sydney, never forgave her. Now Sophia discovers the truth about her mother's own struggles as a refugee and tries to understand why she abandoned her only child. With Helen sliding into dementia, Sophia desperately tries to find answers.

 

 

3.5
A timely, moving account of sacrifice.

Both a tender mother-daughter love story, and a shocking account of refugee hardship, Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother is a poignant and personal documentary that will resonate with many. Turkiewicz, now in her 60s, is an Australian filmmaker – one of the first graduates of the Australian Film Television and Radio School during the 1970s. She’s always had a difficult relationship with her mother, Helen, an uneducated and orphaned Polish refugee who brought her to Australia as an infant, and abandoned her in an Adelaide orphanage for several years – an event which has scarred the filmmaker forever. ‘My heart asked this question,’ says Turkiewicz: ‘If you were this motherless orphan, how could you wish this destiny on me?’ Yet Helen, now losing her memory to dementia in a nursing home (‘You’ve put me in the orphanage now,’ she jokes) is fast losing the capacity to answer questions of any kind.

Turkiewicz admits she has ‘plundered’ her mother’s tragic and eventful life for her dramas, like the 1984 AFI Award winning film Silver City, starring Gosia Dobrowalska, and in an unfinished documentary begun in 1976. Returning to those neglected roles of 16mm black and white documentary footage, and undertaking a number of international journeys to investigate the history, Turkiewicz now stitches together a more complete and compassionate picture of what happened to her mother during World War II and the legacy it had on her subsequent decisions.

Born and orphaned as a baby in Eastern Poland (now Ukraine), the young Helen was homeless and living on the streets when she was rounded up and sent to Stalin’s Siberian gulags along with two million other Poles. Many died along the way, and in the harsh working camps, as well as on the long march to freedom in Persia (Iran), several years later. Recalling the sight of so much death, the middle-aged Helen recounts matter-of-factly that she looked at the dead on the roadside around her and thought, ‘Them today. I’m tomorrow.’ Finding herself in a refugee camp in Africa, Helen discovers and loses the love of her life and becomes a single mother to Sophia, a child she struggles to support when they come to Australia.

Using maps, photographs, extensive archival WWII footage, together with tasteful and minimalist recreations, the film is a skilfully compiled portrait (edited by Denise Haslem) of a particular Eastern European refugee experience. A haunting and melancholy violin score by Cezary Skubiszewski underlines the tragedy, and we can’t help but relate this 1950s story to the refugee experiences of today, where Australia is so much less welcoming of the dispossessed.

The real triumph of Once My Mother is the way in which the filmmaker weaves in her own story of being a rebellious daughter, growing up in a peaceful Australia, ashamed of her illiterate mother, and resentful of perceived abandonment. Finally, seeing the full picture of her mother’s history and experience, Turkiewicz not only understands and forgives, but stands in awe of her mother’s ability to survive and to continue loving, especially as she’d known so little love herself. It’s incredibly moving.