Once My Mother isn’t necessarily an exemplar of expert filmmaking. Chronicling the life of director Sophia Turkiewicz’s mother, Helen, who travelled the perilous journey from war-torn Poland through a Siberian gulag and Zimbabwean refugee camp before arriving in Australia, some formal failings are understandable: Turkiewicz filmed the bulk of the documentary with no funding, meaning the bulk of her footage was filmed by non-professional camera operators with comparatively cheap equipment.
Turkiewicz’s decision to tell her own tale parallel to her mother’s is less defensible. It’s not that there isn’t potency in her growing to forgive and understand her mother – Sophia spent her early childhood in an orphanage as a young girl when Helen abandoned her, and spent much of her life ashamed and resentful of her mother. It’s simply that Helen’s story is so compelling that it’s inevitably disappointing when the focus shifts.
Helen’s story is why, overall, Once My Mother works. It presents a rare perspective – that of a woman, yes (there are particulars to this story that a male director would surely have excised), but also that of a Polish refugee whose story has been swept under the rug by historians. The story’s power excuses the film’s blemishes.