There is a haunting moment in Sophia Turkiewicz's film Once My Mother, when her mother says “I’d like to know how my mother looked. I didn’t have photo. No pictures. I’d be giving anything when I see my mother. When I just see her face.” There is something almost unbearable in her face, and the way that she says it – with such longing. This old woman, born in Poland, who on most days does not recognise her own daughter, is bleeding from the wound she’s had since she was a baby and her mother died, leaving her with no memories of ever being safe or loved.
We hear Helen’s voice and we see her daughter, Sophia, in the rural part of western Ukraine that once belonged to Poland, in a one-room house that once belonged to their family. Inside it is dark, desolate, stained by undisguisable poverty; the daughter is looking around, hard and slow, waiting for something. An epiphany, a sign of her mother’s belongingness – here?
Turkiewicz addresses her mother directly this way (as “you” ) all through the documentary. It does not feel false or forced. It is a voice of a daughter still trying to reach her mother. She is in a hurry: Turkiewicz began making the film without funding, backing or professional equipment in response to her mother’s descent into dementia. She’d tried, and dumped, the idea once before, 35 years ago.
The chasm between Sophia and Helen has not shrunk in the years since. If there is time to do something about it, that time, the daughter knows, is now. That the mother doesn’t remember her own mother and does not remember – or has ever known – herself as her mother’s daughter is central to the story Turkiewicz tells, even though she makes little of it explicitly. The breakdown of memory, just like the breakdown of familial love, and the disfiguring effects of these two kinds of breakdown across generations as well as the shock of their deep interconnectedness – what else is this film about if not about that?
Oh, yes, it is also about places all across the world we turn and re-turn to in search of a way back into our history, back into our family. Turkiewicz says of her first trip to her mother’s village in Ukraine in 2007: “Before then, my sense of who I was occurred somehow in a vacuum. ... 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 … For the first time I understood what it feels like to have a generational past.”
In place of surviving relatives, documents, photographs and letters are places as sites of Helen’s pre-Australia life. The house where we see Sophia trying to imagine the motherlessness of her own mother. The village where she walks around beside strays dogs, wild turkeys, chickens (chickens always look the happiest) and old toothless women bent evenly in half. That whole hard, torn part of the world.
Turkiewicz’s quest to anchor her mother’s story in time and place is the quest to understand her mother in a way she could not be understood from Australia. Except, the places in Helen’s life have been radically transformed by history. The Polish village of Oleszow is now the Ukrainian village of Oleshiv. Everything is not how it once was. “If you came back now”, the narrator tells her mother, “you’d be a stranger like me.” We can argue that all places are essentially unrecognisable over time, that they only seem unchanged to those who choose not to look hard enough, except – one more ‘except’! – in the first few decades of her life, Helen was uprooted against her will again and again, thrown out of cities and countries, made to walk thousands of kilometres from one godforsaken location to another.
Turkiewicz travels from place to place looking for traces of her mother’s life. She cannot find any. Not in Oleshiv, where Helen lived with her uncle after her father died; not in Stanislawów (Ivano-Frankivsk now) where, aged nine or ten, she went searching for food and shelter after her uncle threw her out on the streets; not in Lwow (the Ukrainian Lviv) where she wound up alone when the war started and this part of Poland was given to Stalin. Yes, what a life. And she is not yet sixteen. By sixteen she is in a Siberian gulag, like nearly two million of her compatriots, cutting down trees and building roads in arctic winter temperatures while her hands turn into “raw meat”. And then she is in Persia. And then, finally – how is it she is still alive? – in a Polish refugee camp in Lusaka, Northern Rhodesia. The first place that feels like home. The place where Sophia is born.
Turkiewicz maps the trails of her mother’s forced dislocations. These places across Europe, Middle East, Africa – both brutalising and brutalised – may not yield visible traces of Helen’s past, but they hold knowledge, not accessible elsewhere, about her life. Physical sites of trauma (I have been calling them “traumascapes” in my work) matter deeply and singularly because trauma is contained not in an event as such, but in the way this event is experienced and re-experienced over time, frequently across generations.
Cathy Caruth has famously taken this idea further, arguing that the “historical power of the trauma is not just that the experience is repeated after its forgetting, but that it is only in and through its inherent forgetting that it is first experienced at all”. Traumascapes can both trigger and anchor the re-experiencing and re-remembering of traumatic pasts. Through these places, the parts of our pasts that memory cannot fully absorb, and language cannot fully contain, continue to inhabit and refashion the present.
Portals of a sort? Yes, they are. This is what Turkiewicz is looking for – for the pasts alive at these sites of her mother’s early life to tear through the present, to come looking for her. Yet the two places that frame Once My Mother are Australian locations: Adelaide’s Goodwood Orphanage, where Helen left young Sophia for two years (with weekly visits on Sundays) while she looked for some way to make a life and home in Australia; and the John Paul II Aged Care Village, also in Adelaide, where Sophia put elderly Helen when it became unsafe for her to live on her own. Two places of abandonment. Two homes that are the opposite of home.
Another haunting moment is a conversation between Helen and Sophia, as the camera rolls:
Sophia: You put me in the orphanage. Then when I …
Helen (finishing Sophia’s sentence): Then … when you grew up, you put me in an orphanage.
The invisible made visible, the yet-to-be-manifest made palpable, the ghostly made visceral, human body revealed to be both an archive of feelings and a tuning fork – we could hardly be surprised that documentary and feature films have proved particularly adept at capturing the affective power of traumascapes as we encounter them first-hand or through acts of secondary witnessing, as inheritors of traumatic histories inscribed in them or as strangers passing through on our way somewhere else. Historian Esther Faye writes that what got to her most about Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah (1985), the nine-hour-plus Holocaust documentary, “was the sight of ‘his’ camera restlessly scanning an unbelievably tranquil Polish countryside, quite obviously in search of something. What, I wondered, was missing for his camera? What was it in search of?” Perhaps, Faye mused, it was some memory not yet made flesh, not yet articulated or articulable, its emerging forms to be gleaned only “in the very landscape itself”?
For Those Who Can Tell No Tales, another recent Australian feature film, takes us deep inside an encounter with a traumascape; only this time there are no daughters looking for their mothers’ ghosts, just the raw forcefield of a place marked, and transformed, by human suffering. Co-written by Australian performer and playwright Kym Vercoe and directed by Bosnian filmmaker Jasmila Žbanic, For Those Who Can Tell No Tales is based on Vercoe’s real-life experiences, which she first turned into a play.
In 2008, Kym Vercoe travelled to Bosnia for a holiday. She went to Sarajevo first, loved it, and then decided to visit the famous bridge in eastern Bosnia immortalised in Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge over Drina (Andrić, the only Nobel prize winner from the region, is well-known and read in the West) ending up in a town called Višegrad on the Bosnian-Serbian border. An arts festival was on and hotels in town were full, so Vercoe booked a room in a spa hotel on the town’s outskirts. The hotel called Vilina Vlas was warmly recommended in Tim Clancy’s travel guide for its “pleasant natural surroundings” and romantic possibilities, if you were after that kind of thing. Vercoe was not, she was traveling alone, but the place sounded just fine.
European summer. Višegrad is all charm and history. The Ottoman-period bridge, an UNESCO world heritage site, is, as you’d expect, pretty spectacular. There is more-than-passable live music, courtesy of the arts festival. What’s not to like? But then it’s time to go back to the Vilina Vlas hotel. In the movie we see Vercoe in her room, unable to sleep, tossing and turning. Now she is sitting on the toilet, naked, head between her legs. The place, it’s clear, is getting to her. She doesn’t know why. Something is pushing down on her body. The air seems unfit for breathing. The silence feels dirty.
Vercoe doesn’t know that she is in a place of immense, unhealable, unacknowledged trauma – there are no plaques anywhere, no memorials, no mentions of anything in her trusty tourist guide – but her body does. Her body is refusing to rest, to be appeased. It’s lashing out. Wriggling out of the tourist banality of her visit. Demanding something, some kind of reckoning. Making Vercoe get behind her computer on her return to Australia and start googling.
Višegrad, Vercoe discovers, was a site of wholesale ethnic cleansing of Bosnian Muslims in the 1990s. Here is what happened there: children, women and the elderly were locked inside houses and set alight; thousands were thrown off the bridge, killed in daylight; corpses crowded the famous river; hundreds of women were first raped, then killed. Whoever survived – Bosnian Muslims had been a majority when ethnic cleansing started – was driven out. The town was made part of Republika Srpska in the Dayton Peace Accords. A returning war criminal was welcomed back a hero. The only monument to the victims of ethnic cleansing, erected decades later, had the word “genocide” removed by order of the authorities. Since then, twelve million Euro have been invested in Emir Kusturica’s new “art city”, Andrićgrad, which fetishises the imagined (and fabricated) world of Ivo Andrić’s Bosnia and turns its back cynically, openly, on the legacy of the war.
As to Hotel Vilina Vlas, it was a rape camp where two hundred Bosnian Muslim women were detained, repeatedly raped and killed. Their bodies were never found. Their names were never made public. Vercoe experiences the absence of any acknowledgement as a violation. Of course she knows about what happened in Bosnia in the 1990s, but she just assumed – wouldn’t you? – that places like Hotel Vilina Vlas would be either destroyed or turned into memorials; certainly not reintegrated back into people’s daily lives as places of recreation, certainly not written up in tourist guides. “I didn’t know”, she says, “that you could just clean up the room and pretend it never happened.” Back in Australia months go by, yet she cannot forget that she slept in that room. Same furniture. Probably same sheets. And no one has been charged with anything. The guy who ran the place still lives in town. She probably bumped into him on the street.
No, she cannot let it go. She writes to Tim Clancy. How is it that you omitted to mention that this hotel you warmly recommended was a site of mass rape, that the bridge you poetically extolled was a place of many open massacres? In the movie when she finally confronts Clancy on her return trip to Bosnia six months later (it’s winter now, snow everywhere), he tells her that blacklisting the whole community is not the answer. Paranoia and isolation are bad for Bosnia. Tourists need to come here and the country needs to move forward. This argument may sound slight, morally indefensible, but it is frequently evoked by those who seek to justify the distressing dearth of public forms of reckoning and remembrance, even as they do not deny the war crimes committed here (there are plenty of those who do; Vercoe meets some of them in Višegrad).
That one night at Hotel Vilina Vlas changes Vercoe’s life. In one of the film’s pivotal scenes, Vercoe returns to the hotel on her second trip, despite being repeatedly threatened by the authorities. She is determined to commemorate the nameless women for whom it was the site of their protracted, anguished death. I won’t reveal what she does and how – watch the movie. I watched it and remembered Anna Akhmatova’s poem “Requiem” about the nameless, forgotten victims of Stalin’s terror:
I’d like to name you all by name, but the list
Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
So, I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble words
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing.
Hotel Vilina Vlas is the only remaining material link to what happened to the two hundred women there. It is a sacred site, a crucial historical document, a weapon against the officially sanctioned forgetting and revisionism. It is also repulsive; the cars of holidaymakers parked in front of it are a slap, a spit in the face.
For director Jasmila Žbanic, the film itself is a memorial “for those who can tell no tales” (the title is a quote from Ivo Andrić), bringing into public consciousness the war’s twentieth anniversary. It is also more than a memorial. We see an unmarked, unmemorialised site of trauma create a shock of recognition capable of putting those in its orbit into direct contact with something – a traumatic legacy, or legacies – they did not know about or did not know they knew. We see that shock of recognition lead to the kind of difficult, necessary witnessing that is inseparable from mourning. We come to understand that the affect generated by a traumascape is transmittable, even when the public memory of it is not.
Dancing Auschwitz, the work of Melbourne artist Jane Korman is a further take on the question of how to engage with sites of trauma in terms beyond those of conventional memorialisation or trauma tourism. Korman’s work consists of a photograph and three video pieces, to be played simultaneously. One is an old home movie. Jane – a grandmother now – is a young girl in the video, dancing with abandon in a forest somewhere in Australia alongside her parents and their friends, who are all Holocaust survivors. Korman tells me she grew up with her parents and their friends dancing. All the time. Dance was central to how they chose to commemorate, to keep viscerally alive, the fact of their survival.
In another video Jane’s father, Adolek Kohn, is dancing with Jane, her kids and a niece at Holocaust memorial sites across Europe, including Auschwitz, Dachau and Theresienstadt concentration camps. They dance to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive”. The moves are goofy and awkward, the video has a home-movie feel, it’s intimate, amateurish. Adolek is clear about what he is doing. In the final video, which documents the trip, he says: “If someone would tell me here, then, that I would come 60-something years later with my grandchildren, I’d say ‘What you talking about? What you talking about?’ So here you are. This is really a historic moment.
In 2010 Korman put the “I Will Survive” video piece on YouTube. Then, bedlam. Every newspaper and radio station in every country, just about, wanted to interview her. She was condemned (desecration of memory, dancing on graves, trivialisation of genocide) and praised (celebration of survival, brave act of affirmation, returning humanity to the dead and recasting the survivors as more than victims) in equal measure. Korman has since attempted to respond to every letter and email, including the hate mail from neo-Nazi groups and messages from outraged members of the Jewish community. For her, this extended aftermath, the hard conversations made possible, is part of the work.
In a piece deceptively artless but in fact dense with meaning and thought, and in the space of a few minutes, Korman has found a way to show what is most powerful about traumascapes. They do not merely reinforce the moral responses we already have (or know we should have). They demand that we grapple with our individual responsibility to remember, mourn and make meaning of traumatic histories. It is the kind of responsibility that cannot be outsourced to memorial sites, testimonial texts, cultural institutions, or socially approved rituals. As Kym Vercoe discovered. As Sophia Turkiewicz discovered. As Jane Korman’s father always knew.
Maria Tumarkin is a cultural historian and the author of Traumascapes (2005), Courage (2007) and Otherland (2010).