Once My Mother *** (out of five)
On the face of it, it would seem Sophia Turkiewicz has spent her entire career making films about her mother and herself. Her 1978 short, Letters from Poland, and her 1984 feature, AFI-nominated Silver City, were both inspired by her mother’s story, as was her discarded short Helen. Having spent the next three decades directing diverse television (The New Adventures of Black Beauty, Bananas in Pyjamas, A Country Practice, Mirror Mirror, Something in the Air and Escape of the Artful Dodger) she returns to her mother’s story – and, this time very specifically, her own – in an unconventional documentary.
Her Polish mother, old and somewhere on the dementia spectrum as she appears in this film, had an extraordinary wartime story, going from Poland to Siberia and on to Adelaide via a very unexpected (and intriguingly under-discussed) route. Once My Mother tells Helen’s story in the form of an investigation by Sophia, who also features prominently in the film on-camera today and as her younger self in much archival, personal footage. A central disruption to their story – Helen’s brief abandonment of Sophia at an orphanage – provides additional emotional conflict and potential catharsis.
It’s a very personal story, and Turkiewicz’s decision to construct her narration (spoken in Turkowicz’s vocal tones and rhythms by actor Jen Vuletic) as a series of questions and statements posed by Sophia to Helen unfortunately doesn’t invite us in but keeps the conversation between them; it’s a strange choice and an unfortunate one, and the narration is the film’s weakest feature. But the story itself is a cracker, encompassing World War Two and Australia’s great postwar immigration story simultaneously on a personal and global level, and there is a lot of very well-chosen and integrated archival footage. Just when the film feels too much like a home movie, it shows us the world.