by SOPHIA TURKIEWICZ
ONCE MY MOTHER is the story of two films – the one I started in 1976 and never finished and the one I’ve made now. The story begins in 1976 when I was a film school student and shot 16mm black and white footage of my mother and family, intending to make a documentary. But the footage was never edited. Looking back, I lacked the skill, the maturity and the perspective to do her story justice. The rushes lay in film cans in my hot attic cupboard for over thirty years. Occasionally, I’d come across them and I’d think that I should check out those rushes. But it all seemed too hard.
Then in 2008, I finally had a reason to dig out the footage. I’d been watching my mother declining into dementia over several years and I realized that she was forgetting not only the stories of her life, but also who her family was, including me. Suddenly, it became important to see what was in those cans. It seems now like they’d been lying there for years in that dark cupboard, waiting until I was ready.
What a surprise it was to see my mother’s younger self, aged in her early fifties in 1976, come to life before my eyes. After years of seeing her lost and confused, I’d myself forgotten what she had once been like. The footage revealed the person she’d once been. Despite all the tragic events of her life, I primarily remember that she had a playful way of looking at the world. This positive quality may well have been important in keeping her alive during those early years of surviving on the streets and in a Soviet labour camp.
I realized then that I had to finish this story of my mother’s life. I started filming again, with whatever resources I could find. Her memory was entirely unreliable. At times she was remarkably lucid. At others, she had no memory of what had happened in her life.
I knew I was in a race against time. So I started shooting whatever I could with whatever resources I could find. These usually involved non-professional equipment and people so that at least I had a record of her declining years and her remaining memories.
Then in 2007, I was invited to Poland to screen my feature film, Silver City, at the Wroclaw Film Festival as part of a retrospective of the work of Polish/Australian actor Gosia Dobrowolska. I took the opportunity to search for my mother’s village in what had once been eastern Poland and was now part of Ukraine.
Eventually, I located Oleszow (now Oleshiv), just east of what had been the regional town of Stanislawow (now Ivano Frankivsk). With my husband Stephen in tow as cameraman, we filmed my arrival in the village, meeting various locals and discovering my mother’s old family home.
This first trip to Oleshiv affected me profoundly. Before then, my sense of who I was occurred somehow in a vacuum. I had no family connection to any past generation beyond that of my mother. I had a stepfather and two brothers in Australia but there were no links back beyond this one generation. There were no surviving aunts or uncles, no nieces or nephews, no grandparents in our family. When my mother spoke of her own mother, it never occurred to me she was speaking about a woman who was my grandmother. I’d never even called her my ‘grandmother’ – it was always ‘your mother’ when we discussed her. Now here I was in the village, tramping through the fields and along dirt tracks that my relations had also walked along. They suddenly became real. I could imagine them. They were no longer abstract ideas. For the first time I understood what it feels like to have a generational past.
I was hoping to find a direct link to blood relatives but that didn’t happen. I found a number of indirect links that let me put parts of my family jigsaw together. And I came back to Australia knowing that I had to make the film – somehow.