More flak over ABC documentary

07 October, 2014 by Don Groves

The ABC’s rebuff of a campaign led by the producers to allocate an earlier timeslot to Sophia Turkiewicz’s documentary Once My Mother has drawn the ire of filmmaker Martha Ansara.

A founding member of the Australian Documentary Forum (Ozdox) and a recipient of the AFI's Byron Kennedy Award, Ansara has described the decision as being in line with the broadcaster’s move away from innovative single documentaries.


The ABC will screen Turkiewicz’s 72 minute film, which traces her search to discover why her Polish mother abandoned her and the truth behind her wartime escape from a Siberian gulag, on Sunday October 26 at 10.20 pm.

Producer Rod Freedman beseeched ABC head of programming Brendan Dahill to schedule the doco at 9.30 pm or earlier, fearing it would be ignored in the ‘graveyard’ timeslot, and he enlisted the support of industry colleagues.

Dahill replied, “I am happy with the slot that we have chosen for the show and the context and the environment within which we have placed it.”

Last weekend Ansara sent an open email to Dahill asking him to reconsider. “I am a passionate supporter and observer of the ABC, “ she said. “I was saddened but, quite frankly, not surprised to learn of the decision to program the documentary Once My Mother at 10:20 on a Sunday night.

“I am sure that you and others in management positions at the ABC wrestle constantly with the contradictions between the broadcaster's cultural and social obligations and the realities of the ratings imperative, governments, the media environment, competing programming demands, etc. and I know you must do so in the face of already inadequate and ever shrinking finance.

“Nevertheless, Once My Mother has proved itself with audiences and critics alike. It's a rare Australian documentary that can get a cinema release and yet this film has done well enough theatrically to have made it worthwhile — for the cinema owners, at least.

"It has thereby gained sufficient publicity for the ABC to build on, were the film to be screened in a better time slot. While admittedly it would take more publicity resources than you can allocate to it for Once My Mother to rate through the roof, it seems a waste of the purchase to bury a critically acclaimed film which has much greater potential.

“More importantly, however, is the danger — of which the programming of Once My Mother is so emblematic — posed by the ABC's trend away from one-off documentaries. This seems to me to be a danger both for Australian documentary production and for the ABC itself.

“My fear is that as the ABC increasingly relinquishes its responsibilities for innovation, reflection of cultural diversity and specialised programming, and the more the ABC replicates what is provided by the commercial sector rather than distinguishes itself from it, then the more vulnerable it is to the forces which would have the ABC abolished altogether.

“As a documentary filmmaker, we make films to be seen and we need money to make them, even if we ourselves barely make a living. One-off creative documentary-making is gasping for breath out here and we really do need your support.”

Dahill is overseas and was not available for comment today.