Monday, July 14, 2014

Interview with Once My Mother director, Sophia Turkiewicz

The incredible film, Once My Mother which Movie Critical reviewed as part of out coverage of the 2014 Sydney Film Festival, is being released nationally on the 24th of July. When Sophia Turkiewicz was only six years old, her Polish mother, Helen placed her in an Adelaide orphanage. It wasn't until later in life that Turkiewicz started to piece together the stories her mother had told her over the years and realised the reasons behind her actions. Once My Mother takes us on a journey through wartime Poland and Siberia and Helen's life as a refugee before settling in Australia. It is the amazing story of Helen's survival, but also a heart warming story of reconciliation and forgiveness.

We were extremely lucky to sit down with film maker, Sophia Turkiewicz today to discuss the film, her mother and the upcoming release.

Firstly, thankyou for sharing such an incredibly beautiful and personal journey in Once My Mother. It seems like you have had the idea for the film in one way or another for quite a long time. How long exactly had you been thinking about making the film?
Well, I have been making it in one way or another since 1976. I started making a film about my mothers life when I was a student at film school in my second year and went on and shot the material which you see in black and white, but I never got around to finishing it. Then I graduated from film school and life went a different way. I graduated with this film in cans and they just sat there year after year and it was only really in 2007 that I started to see that my mother's mental health was really starting to deteriorate. She was had dementia and I thought I better get that film finished. I sort of got the wind up because I realised she was probably not going to be around for much longer. In the meantime over the years I had also shot other bits and pieces, but I seriously started to get back to the project in 2007 and from that point on whenever I could I would get whoever was around me with a camera to help me. Finally it's finished but it really did take the last seven years to get it finished. We had a lot of problems raising funds for it, but that didn't stop us filming. The irony is that by the time we actually got the funding from Screen Australia at the end of 2012 we had shot all the material that you have seen in the film.

So you pretty much shot the film and then you got the funding, is that how it worked?
There was still a lot of archival work we needed to do and all that sort of stuff so all the funding that we got ended up paying for the archival footage plus the post-production like the editing.

How long was it in between when you first got the funding and when you first showed the film in public?
Well taking a step back, what happened was while we still were looking for funding we tried to raise money privately, such as doing a fundraiser at the Sherman Gallery. We managed to raise a little bit of private money and with that it was enough to employ Denise Haslem, who became our editor. At that stage we just got her to do a rough cut because all those years I had been filming I was going crazy because I couldn't edit it myself because I didn't have the skills. As my mother's health was deteriorating and I was filming her, she was going round in circles so I couldn't actually keep track of what was actually good material and what wasn't. I was desperate to just be able to get a rough cut and take out all the unusable stuff and see what it was I actually had. So once we got that private bit of money, we got a rough cut and started showing it around. Not publicly, but at least finally I had a cut which I could show people and say "This is what I am trying to do", but that didn't help us all that much in attracting funding. Then finally we got the funding at the end of 2012 and then we spent the next eight months editing and the first screening was for our cast and crew. The very first public screening we had was at the Adelaide Film Festival at the end of last year.

As we said before, your film is extremely personal. Was there any time during the making of the film when you said to yourself "I can't do this or show this to anyone, it's just too personal"?
Well, again I am going to backtrack it a bit. Initially it wasn't actually going to be that personal. Initially the focus was just going to be on my mother's story. I knew I was going to be in there somewhere, but I just thought it might just be as a narrator or I thought I might just have a minor appearance in there somewhere. Gradually over the development of it I realised I was going to be a character in the story and the drive behind the story really was for me to be able to figure out my relationship with my mother. The story is a story of our reconciliation and I just wanted to track how it actually occurred. So once I realised that then I made a commitment in the storytelling to be as truthful as I could about the relationship. There is no point in not being truthful because audiences can see if there is something not authentic or if they are being manipulated. So I just tried to tell the story as I had experienced it. Now I also was aware that I didn't just want it to be therapy for myself, I felt that I had been doing that and I had to find a way to actually let the audience into the story as well. Once I realised it was a story of reconciliation, that informed me what I should put in. So once that happened I constructed the narrative or my mother's life and then my own life, and then I worked to find the balance between the two stories.
But in terms of putting myself on the screen, I did find that incredibly difficult. I am much happier being behind the camera! Initially, when we were in the cutting room I thought "Oh my God, I just can't do this!" I hated seeing me on the screen, but at a certain point I realised I needed to treat myself as another character in the film and once I made that decision, to my absolute astonishment I was able to construct myself as if I was a character on screen who's life is being explored and nothing to do with me.

So when you were growing up, you did obviously felt a lot of resentment towards your mother, because you were only six years old when she placed you in the orphanage in Adelaide. A child's mind doesn't operate with the same logic as an adult or a mother's, and as you said the film was almost therapeutic for you. When did you start to feel as though you were really starting to understand and forgive your mother?
Well, really my mother ended up being in an aged care home for ten years before she died and she slowly got more and more forgetful. She lived in Adelaide and for the first seven years or so when I think about it, I still had some sort of unresolved thing with my mother because I would feel like I needed to go regularly back to Adelaide because that's what daughters do when they have aged parents. So I would play that role of being a dutiful daughter, but every time I got off the plane in Adelaide I would have this knot in my stomach and I knew that I didn't really want to be there. So I would do my duty and with relief get back onto the plane and came back to my real life in Sydney. It didn't happen over night, but somehow gradually something happened internally. I was filming bits and pieces, but once I started researching her life because I had not known the big historical picture because I had just grown up with the family stories. The historical information hadn't been available until the 1990's with the fall of communism and that whole story had come out. So when I started researching I started to find out this incredibly epic story that had an historical backdrop and it was this incredibly intimate story. As I started  researching that I started to realise what a heroic, extraordinary woman my mother was and in that process all sorts of things started to resolve internally and certainly those last few years I was jumping on a plane to see her, I couldn't wait to go. I started to look forward to spending as much time as I could with her. Time was precious and she was going mentally, but it didn't matter. I wasn't going there to have conversations with her in the end, it was just to be with her. What I understand now about dementia now is that the brain might go, but all that emotion doesn't and while I was there and being close and touching her, that was hugely important not just for her, but for me.

You do see that in the film when she starts to talk about how she was pregnant with Sophia, and you then tell her that you are Sophia. She is then just so happy to realise that so you can tell all the emotion is still there.
Absolutely and that is the interesting thing about dealing with people with dementia. Before when I would go there and I would have the same conversation with her twenty times and I would get frustrated. Then I would realise that it's not about the words, it is about the emotional connection.

Do you think if you didn't have the film you would have still come to that realisation, or do you think film really aided your realisation?
That's an interesting question. I don't know, I think I use my creative expression to resolve issues in my own life. Maybe I would have found some way to resolve it by talking about it with friends or writing about it, but my particular way of doing it is through film because that is what I have been trained to do. I can't actually answer that question...but it is a great question!

So when you made your film, Silver City back in the 1980's which was about Polish immigrants coming to Australia, was it because you were more fascinated by your mother's story, or were you looking for a way to understand and forgive then?
Another really, really good question. I think at that point I knew that mother had had some extraordinary life experiences and my friends were always curious when I told them bits and pieces. I knew that there was an incredible story there, but I have to say that at that time I was using her story for my own benefit. So I think in that context that was what I made Silver City for, not to unravel our relationship. I think that this story is a companion piece to Silver City, that one was a drama and this one is a documentary. It was almost that I wanted to get the story right this time, which I hadn't done with Silver City because it was dramatized and I had changed things. The way I think about Silver City now is that it was about a family's arrival in Australia as refugees, but it was the background of the story which is authentic and more interesting to me now rather than the fictional thread that's got nothing to do with my family.

In other words, Silver City was more of a "based on", while this is more of an emotional film?
That's a good way of putting it. It was very loosely based!

During the film, you are travelling through Poland and going to all these places that your mother had told you she had been. When you were in these places did you feel a connection such as you could feel the ghosts of the past?
Oh totally. I had grown up hearing these stories about her growing up in these little towns and I could just imagine it somehow, but as an abstract because you don't really know what it is like. To actually go there and see what it was really like was hugely important for me personally, but also extraordinary to be walking through a village that is still incredibly poor and it is now part of Ukraine. I think nothing has changed since my mother was there, apart from the fact that they now have electricity. There's still no running water in the village, there is just a well every so often. My mother's house which you see in the film, you actually don't see but it is a dirt floor. That is common still in that village. So it was amazing to walk around and see what life might have been like, but also the ghosts walking around the streets which she would have been playing in as a kid. That was just hugely, hugely important to me.

What was the hardest part about making the film would you say?
The hardest part was getting the money. Once we got the money, from that point on nothing was hard. It was just a joy. Of course it was hard day to day with the usual types of obstacles. Apart from the money, the hardest part was before we got the money and we were still filming, I didn't have access to proper access to professional equipment and people. Pretty much all the footage was shot on a non-professional camera. There was only one day when we had a professional cinematography and that was a lovely friend of mine who had given up a day of her weekend when we were both in Adelaide and we shot one of the first scenes you see of my mother answering the door. That was one of the only days we had a cinematographers on board. One of my disappointments is that we weren't able to have material professionally shot. It would have a completely different look and it would have been a completely different film.

Were there any parts of your mother's life that were particularly hard to document or research?
Well, the whole process of researching my mothers life was done in the last six years. It was just so difficult to find any documentation. I got a researcher to try and find family documents such as birth certificates, death records of her parents and all that kind of stuff. She couldn't find anything because there is no such documentation. I have no idea when my mother was born for instance, there is no documentation about her life. When I was researching, nothing was dug up at all which was a bit of a disappointment. I went looking for clues by trying to find my grandparents headstones and couldn't find anything. What was extraordinary was that after this search all around the world at places like archival institutes in Ukraine and nothing came to light, my husband who is an art historian had to go to Canberra to do some research at the National Archives and I went along with him. He told me to put in my mother's name and see what comes up, and blow me down...a whole mass of documents came up! What I think had happened was that once that she had been transferred to a camp in Tehran, they were a lot more organised and had information about each of the refugees and documented them. From there, the documents would have gone to Africa with my mother and then to the National Archives in Canberra! That was a miracle!

So did you mother every have a birthday date, as she didn't have a documented date of birth?
Oh yes! Someone made up a birth date for her. Her made up birthday was the 2nd of October. We have no idea what year she was born, although I calculated it must have been around 1924 as she was 16 when she got imported to Siberia.

You covered so much in the film, was there much you had to leave out or was most of it in there?
Oh no no. Again, once you have a theme, you get spoilt for choices. I think this is a danger a lot of film makers make. They think because they have all of this fabulous material that they have to put it in somehow. For me, if it doesn't actually fit, it's never really going to go in the story. So there were other stories and incidents that I have got a record of that didn't end up in the final film.

What would you like audiences to take away from Once My Mother in regards to relationships?
Well, even though it is more about more my area of complications with my mother, I think every mother and child relationship has it's complexities. What I look at is the course of our relationship over my lifetime up until now and it changes that mother and child relationship. That relationship is a dynamic one and it evolves. I guess if there is one thing I feel so lucky to have is first the opportunity to reconcile with my mother before she died, and also to have that on record for my son and his family. I just feel so privileged. I get so many coming up to me saying "My mother died and I never reconciled with her". My advice is do it before it is too late, you will never regret it.

Is it still emotional for you watching the film back?
Well, to my surprise I like to sit in the cinema with people who are watching it because I like to see how people are responding. I often find myself getting involved in the story myself and I am thinking "Oh my God! What comes next?" as I have forgotten!

What I gathered from watching Once My Mother is that it is almost like a present of love to your mother. Did she get to see any of the footage before she passed away?
No, she saw bits and pieces of the other footage I had filmed and she saw the video I brought back from the town she grew up in, which you see in the movie when she discovers that her sister had been killed by the Russians. She died before the film was finished and that is one of my regrets. I would have loved to have had her there in the audience watching her life up on the screen. She would have had no comprehension of what it was all about, but it would have been a beautiful experience.

How did she feel about you making a film about her life? Did she like that idea?
She was bemused by this thing I was doing, she couldn't understand it. Yet she would go along very happily. I remember I wanted to shoot one scene of my arrival at the aged care home and I shot it like you would a drama where you have shot sizes, and you do reverses of different shot sizes. There are several takes to get that effect. I was shooting it like it was a drama rather than a doco because my background had always been in drama! What was hilarious was that she got right into the whole thing and with every take, her performance just got bigger and bigger and bigger! Then she started to involve the camera operator by winking at him or waving! It was then I discovered what an actress she was!

The film opens on the 24th of July. How are you feeling about the release?
Oh very excited! It's such a thrill. Doco's for a start rarely get a national release so we are so lucky to have had that opportunity, and I am dying to show it to audiences out there. It's just about how to get it out there which is our big challenge as we don't have a big marketing budget or anything. We're just relying on getting the word out and word of mouth. That's the only stressful thing at the moment.

What has been your favourite part of the journey so far?
Actually getting it out to the audiences and the Q & A sessions. When you make a film, you want people to get out and see your story. To be there with an audience and getting their responses is what it's all about ultimately. That's why you make a film.

It's been at a few film festival's now. How do you think being at a film festival is going to compare to an actual release?
It is a different kind of mind set because film festivals are a specific kind of audience and are people who are passionate about film. Now we are finding that showing the film for a group of paying customers is a different thing. It's a different feeling to have a general public. The one thing that we have picked up at the film festivals is that as we have won three Audience Awards, that tells us that if the audience does come to see the film they do respond. That is certainly the feeling we are getting from screening it is that if we get the audience in, they are not disappointed.

So what's next for you after the release?
Well I have got another project which is a documentary, but it's too early to tell. I'm too busy at the moment to focus on it, but I look forward to really getting into the next one once this one is over.

Who are some of the film makers who inspire you?
I always find that hard to answer as I am not one of those people who have a list, but certainly I think one of our greats here in Australia is Peter Weir. I love his storytelling, he is a master of storytelling. When I was teaching at the film school I would often use his films to show students his directing choices. I've pulled his work apart a lot to see how he does it and boy, is he a master!

We would like to thank Sophia Turkiewicz for her time and wish her all the best of luck!

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