This short documentary biography of the fractured relationship of a mother and daughter, and the mother’s incredible survival through experiences most of us have never known, is a must-see. Once my Mother is by Australian film maker Sophia Turkiewicz, about her struggle to accept her mother’s life story, and reconciliation with her. It is a film that has won great admiration from reviewers and viewers, won several awards, and stirred up a lot of controversy. See the reviews in the site linked to.
Helen, Sophia’s mother, was orphaned at an early age, and lived on the streets until she became a domestic servant. Along with 2 million Poles, she was evacuated when Poland was split up by Stalin and Hitler, and spent a year in a gulag in Siberia, surviving on almost nothing in terrible conditions. Eating, she said, made her more hungry, so she would hide her two slices of bread a day, not just from others, but from her self. The saviour of those who survived that terrible year was General Anders, who bargained with Stalin for their release. There followed a forced march across Russia, two thousand kilometres, with little to eat and next to no protection from the terrible climate. And a further evacuation to Persia. Helen became very ill with typhoid, but somehow survived. They ended up in Rhodesia, where she had a few happy years in a refugee camp, and fell in love with an Italian refugee. Shortly before she gave birth to Sophia, her lover was returned to Italy. Helen wanted to go to England, but single mothers were not accepted there, so she came to Australia. From there, after some difficult times, she and Sophia went to live in Adelaide. But Helen was unable to get work because she had a child, so she put Sophia in an orphanage for two years, until she found a suitable man and married him, with the motive of having a home of her own, and reuniting with her daughter.
Sophia’s story is woven into the complex narrative of Helen’s early life, reconstructed from archival footage and an unfinished film Sophia had begun to make some years before. Sophia was very angry when her mother abandoned her, as she saw it, and rejected her new family when Helen married. For many years she was distant from her mother. The main point of view of the film is recent, when Sophia began to see the story from her mother’s point of view, and reconciled with her. What makes the redemption all the more poignant is that, at this retrospective moment in time, Helen is now old and dementing, in a nursing home, and many of her memories are lost. She died a few months after the film was finished.
The relationship is tender and fragile, and often the love that is so palpable between the two is conveyed by them simply sitting together in Helen’s stark little bedroom, or walking slowly hand in hand through the garden. Sometimes we see Helen just sitting at a table, recollecting or trying to recollect, supporting her face on her hand. The fragility and the sadness are almost overwhelming. Yet there is great beauty in this brave and gentle person, who has survived experiences that destroyed millions of her compatriots.
The other wonderful feature of the film is the history of the Polish refugees during the war. As Helen herself comments, history lies. Much of this story has been erased from history records. No-one will ever know the true numbers that were exterminated by the ruthless collusions and conflicts of mighty powers. Shamefully, the Allies’ deal with Stalin meant that the heroic Poles who survived and those of them who where picked to fight in the final stages against the Nazis were forgotten, and were not allowed to take part in the victory marches in Britain. The British government was afraid of offending Stalin.
And although the Australian government was more liberal, in accepting unmarried mothers as refugees, I couldn’t help comparing this with the present ruthless treatment of asylum seekers.
I hope you will see this film, and would love to hear your responses to it.