Reflecting on her AFI-winning feature Silver City (1984) in her achingly intimate 2013 documentary Once My Mother, filmmaker Sophia Turkiewicz addresses her mother Helen, who, like the protagonists of the film, arrived in Australia as a Polish immigrant, having survived unspeakable horrors during the Second World War:

I gather, I shape, I invent. I choose what to put in, what to leave out, and turn your truth into my fiction. You’re proud of me. I secretly know I’ve not done your story justice.

Born in a refugee camp in Lusaka, Turkiewicz arrived in Australia as a young child with her single mother.1 In 1975, she was selected for the first three-year intake at the newly created Australian Film and Television School.2 Turkiewicz’s graduate short film Letters From Poland (1978) – in which a recently immigrated Polish woman (Basia Bonkowski) awaiting the arrival of her husband learns via a compassionate letter from the man’s first wife that he will not be joining her and their infant daughter in Australia – drew direct inspiration from her mother’s life.3 The film captured the attention of producer Joan Long, best known as the writer of key Australian New Wave film Caddie (Donald Crombie, 1976), who encouraged Turkiewicz to keep developing the idea. While spending six months in Poland, Turkiewicz began work on the script that would become Silver City. She sent the treatment to Long, who began negotiating for funding with the Australian Film Commission.4 Thomas Keneally, author of the novel Schindler’s Ark, was later brought on board as a co-writer.5

The film opens in 1962: on a train bound for Sydney, the elegant Nina (Gosia Dobrowolska) has a chance meeting with her former lover, Julian (Ivar Kants), whom she has not seen in 12 years. Over coffee, the pair reminisce about “Silver City”, a place which no longer exists. The story then flashes back to 1949, when the 21-year-old Nina first arrived in Australia, among a shipload of other displaced persons.

Between 1947 and the early 1970s, a series of agreements saw more than two and a half million migrants resettled in Australia.6 The earliest phase of this migration scheme involved the arrival of 170,000 displaced persons, mainly of Eastern European origin.7 During this period of post-war immigration, refugees and assisted migrants were often ferried directly from migrant ships to immigration settlement camps – usually former army or prisoner-of-war accommodations, comprising many rows of corrugated iron huts. Established as transitory places of inhabitancy prior to the allocation of employment across the country, these camps were ironically dubbed “silver cities” by the migrants who spent their first days, months or years in Australia living within their confines.8 Such locations thus hold an indelible place in the generational memories of many Australian families.

After a brush with callous Australian customs officers, Nina arrives at a migrant hostel (modelled after the Greta camp in New South Wales, which was divided into two distinct sections: one housing men, and the other women and children).9 She quickly forms a kinship with Julian, his wife Anna (Anna Maria Monticelli, credited as Anna Jemison), their young son, and their friend Victor (Steve Bisley). Immediately, the newcomers are met with assimilationist discourse, patronised and instructed to accept the conditions of the camp without complaint: “Remember that, compared with what you’ve got in Europe, this place is a luxury hotel.” For her two-year indentured contract, Nina asks to be allocated a teaching job, but is informed that she is only qualified to work in a factory or as a domestic servant – a reality faced by many women living in migrant accommodation, regardless of their former experience.10

Nina attends a dance at the hostel with Roy Jenkins (Tim McKenzie), a local farmer and potential suitor who cheerfully asserts that Australia was “the right place” to have come – “a free country [with] plenty of work”. In response, Victor bemoans Australia’s anti-intellectualism, pointing out the dearth of opportunities for Julian, who was studying law in Poland. The tension is only broken when Julian’s wife Anna, ever the mediator, reassures Roy that they are all “happy to be here”. Nina remains silent. Sensing her discomfort, Julian suggests his wife as a dance partner for Roy and offers his own hand to Nina. Floating together in the softly lit hall, Julian and Nina share a moment of blissful happiness.

In this time, marriage and the formation of the family unit were considered integral to the process of assimilating to an ‘Australian way of life’.11 But although Nina recognises that Roy presents the possibility of escape – stability, security and, eventually, a place to call her own – she is unwilling to commit herself to a man she does not love. The decidedly less romantic Australian soon reveals that Nina was merely interchangeable to him, offering himself instead to her more obliging friend Helena (Debra Lawrance). All the while, Nina draws closer to Julian, though both know this is a love that cannot be. “If two people like each other more than they should, what happens then?” asks Julian. “They should probably get on two trains going as far as possible in opposite directions,” Nina replies.

In a 1984 interview with Cinema Papers, Turkiewicz stressed that her intention with Silver City was not to make “a film about immigration” but to “write a story that was accessible to the general public” – manifestly a tale of forbidden love.12 The effort to appeal to a broader Australian audience is also apparent in the migrant characters’ use of accented English rather than their native Polish, a choice which does diminish the film’s authenticity. Silver City’s romantic focus proved a common point of criticism at the time of its release. Writing for the Sunday Observer, Sarah Morton argued that the film should have dealt with “the problems of migrants in general rather than concentrating on one conventional affair”,13 while cultural theorist Meaghan Morris opined that Silver City is a good film which, were it not so overly saccharine, “could have been a great one – exactly the kind of savage, magic drama about crucial historical moments that Australian cinema has never yet produced”.14

However, what is remarkable about Silver City’s love story is that, despite the betrayal that Nina eventually commits, Turkiewicz does not extend judgement to her; rather, both she and Anna are presented with warmth, vulnerability, and quiet strength. In an interview with the National Times, the director described her own mother as being “probably a combination of Nina and Anna”.15

Turkiewicz would revisit her mother’s story again in her 2013 documentary. In many ways the realisation of a decades-long endeavour, Once My Mother is a poignant account of survival and of forgiveness, told expressively in the tradition of the personal essay film. Filmmaker Jeni Thornley contextualises Turkiewicz’s film – alongside other Australian women-directed films such as My Survival as an Aboriginal (Essie Coffey, 1979), In This Life’s Body (Corinne Cantrill, 1984), Hatred (Mitzi Goldman, 1996), Night Cries (Tracey Moffatt, 1990), My Life Without Steve (Gillian Leahy, 1986), The Last Goldfish (Su Goldfish, 2017), The Silences (Margot Nash, 2015) and her own Maidens (1978) – as a work that “gaze[s] directly into the mirror of self, family and society”.16 She also points out that Once My Mother is distinctively intertextual, changing the way the viewer may experience the original works.17 Indeed, Turkiewicz has described the documentary as “a companion piece to Silver City,” which she always felt “wasn’t quite the authentic truth” of her mother’s experience.18

Drawing inspiration from stories recounted throughout its director’s childhood, Silver City is ultimately concerned with memory. The film opens and closes with the same song: “Miłość ci wszystko wybaczy” (“Love Will Forgive You Everything”), recorded by Polish singer and actress Hanka Ordonówna in 1933 – harkening back to a more innocent time that now exists only in imperfect reminiscence. The piece is also performed on screen by singer Teresa Haremza in the film’s dance sequence. It is a nostalgic refrain.

Silver City (1984 Australia 101 minutes)

Prod: Joan Long Dir: Sophia Turkiewicz Scr: Thomas Kenneally, Sophia Turkiewicz Phot: John Seale Ed: Don Saunders Art Dir: Igor Nay Mus: William Motzing

Cast: Gosia Dobrowolska, Ivar Kants, Anna Jemison, Steve Bisley, Debra Lawrance, Ewa Bok, Tim McKenzie, Dennis Miller


  1. Anna Maria Nicholson, “Documentary Once My Mother charts journey from Siberian gulag to suburban Adelaide,” ABC News, 5 September 2013.
  2. Now the Australian Film Television and Radio School.
  3. Gary Maddox, “Film-maker Sophia Turkiewicz’s lifetime journey making Once My Mother,” The Sydney Morning Herald, 12 July 2014.
  4. Christine Cremen, “Sophia Turkiewicz,” Cinema Papers, no. 47 (August 1984): p: 239.
  5. Kristin Williamson, “Love in a Nissen hut,” National Times, 21 September 1984: p. 30.
  6. Alexandra Dellios, Histories of Controversy: Bonegilla Migrant Centre (Melbourne: MUP, 2017).
  7. Ruth Balint and Zora Simic, “Histories of migrants and refugees in Australia,” Australian Historical Studies, volume 49, issue 3 (2018): p. 393.
  8. Andrew Jakubowicz, “Commentary on: A first home for many migrants,” Multicultural History of Australia, accessed 2 November 2023, http://www.multiculturalaustralia.gov.au/library/media/Timeline-Commentary/id/10.A-first-home-for-many-migrants-.
  9. Renata Murawska, “Sophia Turkiewicz: Australianizing Poles, or ‘Bloody Nuts and Balts’ in Silver City (1984)” in Diasporas of Australian Cinema, Catherine Simpson, Murawska Renata and Anthony Lambert, eds. (Bristol: Intellect Books, 2009).
  10. Alexandra Dellios, “Unsettling Post-War Settlement: Remembering Unassimilable Families in the Space of the Migrant Camp” in Interdisciplinary Unsettlings of Place and Space, Sarah Pinto, Shelley Hannigan, Bernadette Walker-Gibbs and Emma Charlton, eds. (Singapore: Springer, 2019), p. 221.
  11. Dellios, p. 222.
  12. Cremen, p. 238.
  13. Sarah Morton, “Silver City lacks a little sparkle,” Sunday Observer, 7 October 1984: p. 29.
  14. Meaghan Morris, “Long hits gold in Silver,” Australian Financial Review, 5 October 1984, p. 40-41.
  15. Williamson, p. 30.
  16. Jeni Thornley, “Intertextuality in Margot Nash’s ‘The Silences’.”  Documentary – Jeni Thornley (blog), 11 March 2019, accessed 2 November 2023, https://jenithornleydoco.blogspot.com/2019/03/intertextuality-in-margot-nashs-silences.html.
  17. Thornley.
  18. Dan Edwards, “Epic history, intimately told,” RealTime Arts, Issue 122 (August-September 2014).

About The Author

Grace Boschetti is a Melbourne based writer on film.

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