Once My Mother is an extraordinary documentary by Australian film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz. Turkiewicz explains at the start of the film that she has always had a difficult relationship with her mother, Helen, who is now suffering from dementia. The film presents her mother’s story in parallel with her own story, in an attempt to create peace and closure as her mother nears the end of her life.
For one thing, Helen’s story is incredibly powerful in and of itself, she has slept on the streets of Poland, was a prisoner of war in Siberia, a refugee in Rhodesia and then finally a lonely single mum in 1940s Australia, Helen’s experiences have universal elements that mirror the stories of women from poverty stricken and war torn countries the world over. It is a story of poverty, the atrocities of war, and the stifling social conservatism of mid-20th century Australia. It is also the story of Poland during World War Two and the forgotten citizens turned prisoners, and then soldiers, who became cogs in a machine of a war they did not start and did not understand.
This is also a story about dementia, and Turkiewicz skilfully weaves archival footage, re-enactments and present day interviews to create a sense of change in both rhythm and personality, where once her mother cared for her and worried about her, now she is the one caring for her mother.
Turkiewicz’s documentary is also a testament to the force of narrative in our lives. We can see through the films that Turkiewicz made throughout her career that this theme of the tension between her and her mother, and her mother’s story, is a theme that she returned to again and again, in an attempt to find understanding and common ground. Her mother connected with her as a child by telling her stories, and her mother’s identity and the key to their relationship lies in the unravelling of these stories.
The re-enactments in particular were very well shot and did not feel jarring or melodramatic as many re-enactments often do. Even the extensive use of voice-over (which can often feel a little intrusive) worked very well here, this is in part due to the framing of the film as two parallel stories with Sophia as the narrator/seeker but also as one of the characters so she could blend voiceover and reality quite easily.
In short, I really have nothing but good things to say about this film. It’s a beautiful story, that confronts lots of complex questions around relationships, illness and war, and is particularly relevant today as Australia (and the world actually) grapples with issues around the acceptance of refugees and their place in our society.
If I gave stars i would give it a 5.