Unravelling the ties that bind
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Unravelling the ties that bind

It's a documentary that took Sophia Turkiewicz more than 35 years and a lot of soul-searching to make - but she's not afraid of any questions Canberrans might ask her about it.

Once My Mother is the story of Turkiewicz's fractured relationship with her Polish mother Helen, a World War II refugee who ''abandoned'' Turkiewicz in an Adelaide orphanage at seven. It will screen with a special Q&A session as part of the Canberra International Film Festival on Friday evening.

Filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz went back in time for her documentary Once My Mother.

Filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz went back in time for her documentary Once My Mother.

Photo: Melissa Adams

Helen was an orphaned, homeless teenager when World War II broke out and she was sent from her Polish village to a Siberian prison camp, one of 2 million Poles deported and largely forgotten by history. From there, her journey took her to a refugee camp in Africa where she gave birth to Turkiewicz, before she made it to Australia as a refugee with a child she couldn't support.

Despite feeling betrayed, Turkiewicz said she was always drawn back to her mother's story. She first began documenting it as a film student in 1976 but never finished the project. The unedited footage was put away in a box in the attic until, in 2008, Turkiewicz realised her mother's deteriorating mental health meant it was now or never.

''That was incredible to see those rushes after all those years, because there was my mother in her 50s, very bright and engaged and articulate, and I'd forgotten what she was like because what I was seeing was her decline into dementia,'' Turkiewicz said. ''It was a complete revelation to me. I had no idea at the scale of the deportations. I hadn't even, when I was growing up, asked my mother why she'd been sent to Siberia.''

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Turkiewicz began filming again and even returned to her mother's village in what is now Ukraine. But with masses of material and the film threatening to turn into a World War II documentary, Turkiewicz said it took her some time to realise it was actually about her and her relationship with her mother.

''At one point I just remember leaving my editor working away and I went up to the attic and just started writing and addressing my mother as if I was talking to her and as soon as I heard myself just talking to her, it all fell into place. I must have needed to say all this stuff,'' she said.

The film debuted at the Adelaide Film Festival this month, where it won an audience award.

And while the documentary touches on a number of raw issues - from life as a refugee, to dementia, to family relationships - Turkiewicz says that after working on it for so long, she's completely open to any questions a Canberra audience might throw at her.

''My mantra when I started to tell this story was to tell the truth,'' she said. ''By now I feel as if I've kind of exposed myself through the making of it that I don't think I'm going to really be thrown by people wanting to know about my personal life or anything like that.''

Update: Festival organisers advise that the earlier screening on Friday night of the documentary Once My Mother at Dendy Cinemas has sold out, however tickets are now available for a second screening at 10.15pm.

The full house sign has also gone up on Sunday night's Australian premiere of Night Train to Lisbon. The film, based on the Pascal Mercier novel and starring Jeremy Irons, screens again at Dendy at 2.15pm on Thursday, November 7.

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