Once My Mother

July 26, 2014
Once My Mother (2014)
Once My Mother (2014)

Sophia Turkiewicz’s Once My Mother is the story of great resilience in the face of overwhelming odds – and I’m only talking about securing funding. Having been knocked back twice by the ABC and twice by SBS, Turkiewicz and her experienced producers, Rod Freedman and Bob Connolly, began passing the hat around Polish community groups that had an interest in bringing to light one of the forgotten tragedies of the 20th century.

For although this documentary is essentially the story of Turkewicz’s mother, Helen (AKA. Helena), it also reveals the way the Poles were exploited and abandoned when the Allies joined forces with Stalin. It’s a tale that hardly appears in the history books, although there must be many thousands of families in Australia who have suffered because of this conspiracy of silence. Turkewicz’s personal narrative is interspersed with fascinating newsreel footage, much of it sourced from the Sikorski Institute in London, an organisation staffed and supported by expatriate Poles.

For the filmmaker the larger story only began to take shape after she had begun investigating the facts of her mother’s life. The first impetus arrived when she watched Helen sinking into dementia. In the little time that remained she wanted to learn the truth about her mother’s early years, and bring something back. This she was able to do shortly before Helen died.

The project was an act of catharsis, intended to exorcise the resentment Turkewicz had harboured all her life, after having been committed to an orphanage at the age of seven, when she and her mother arrived in Adelaide in 1953. This perceived rejection had left her feeling angry and unloved. “How,” she asked, “could a loving mother do that to her child?

Once My Mother answers that question by travelling to the tiny Polish village – now part of the Ukraine – where Helen was born. Having lost both parents while she was small, the girl was taken in by an uncle who sent his own children to school while putting his niece to work. By the age of ten, penniless and illiterate, she was cast out into the world. The film tracks her journey from one place to another, until she is arrested and sent to a Russian prison camp in “Siberia” – although it seems to have been a region near the Finnish border.

Helen had committed no crime, she was one of many thousands of Poles who were sent east to provide slave labour for Stalin’s war machine. Everything about this period seems almost too harsh to believe: the long train journeys in crowded, sealed carriages; the forced marches over thousands of kilometres as the Poles trooped south to Uzbekistan, then on to Persia. Mere survival was a miraculous feat.

With the end of the war Helen travelled as a refugee to Lusaka, which was part of Northern Rhodesia. At the camp she fell in love with an Italian prisoner-of-war and became pregnant. The father was sent back to Italy, and Helen and Sophia came to Australia. When she received a letter from her former lover’s new wife in Italy, Helen knew she was condemned to being an unmarried mother – an unenviable distinction in 1950s Adelaide.

It was not until she had met and married another Polish refugee that Helen was able to reclaim her daughter from the orphanage. From that point on she became a model New Australian, complete with a happy family in a suburban home. “God save Australia,” she says. “Protect us from snails.” The only sore point was Sophia, whose rebellious nature was fuelled by memories of her abandonment.

And yet, when it came time to choose a topic for her graduation work at the Australian Film and Television School, Turkiewicz would draw on her mother’s stories, making a short film called Letters From Poland (1979). Years later she would feturn to the theme with her feature, Silver City (1984), in which commercial logic demanded that the immigrants spoke English with a Polish accent. Once My Mother completes an informal trilogy which will eventually make an excellent DVD package.

Funding for this film finally arrived when new faces at the ABC agreed to support the production, and Screen Australia came on board at the third approach. Since making its debut on the festival circuit, Once My Mother has won a succession of awards, which should be an embarrassment to those authorities at the ABC and SBS who felt they didn’t need “another film about the second world war.”

It could be argued that this documentary is exactly the kind of film we need most urgently right now – a study of an illiterate unmarried mother who came through the horrors of war and found a safe haven in Australia. We forget how that wave of post-war migrants was actively sponsored by the federal government, and how those DPs – Displaced Persons – would undo the tight little knots of Anglo-Celtic convention that held sway in this country.

Perhaps, fifty years from now, an Australian filmmaker of Iranian or Sri Lankan origins will be making a documentary about the reception their mother received when she arrived in Australia (or Christmas Island) as a refugee. It might not be such a happy ending.

Once My Mother
Written & directed by Sophia Turkiewicz
Australia/Poland/Ukraine, rated PG, 75 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 26 July, 2014.