The title is a winking oxymoron. Sonia Warshawski is actually very small in size. But the 91-year-old holocaust survivor’s courage and joie de vivre are enormously prominent in her granddaughter’s loving documentary portrait, which also serves as a tribute to an age of Holocaust awareness writ large.
In Big Sonia, directors Leah Warshawski, Sonia’s granddaughter, and Todd Soliday introduce Sonia in the midst of a different battle. For years, Sonia has been the owner of a beloved tailor shop, a kind of neighborhood hangout draped in brightly colored scarves and leopard print pillows where everyone knows each other by first name. The nearly vacant mall that houses the storefront is threatening to shut her down, and Sonia’s struggle to maintain the shop provides the narrative outline for an ambitious story crammed with animated sequences, interviews with family, and speeches followed by therapeutic group sessions discussing the horrors she endured.
“Her methodical gefilte fish preparation is particularly memorable…”
It’s a lot to cover, and there’s quite a bit of fidgeting and jerky pacing. The directors seem intent not to hoist too much torment upon the audience at once; Sonia’s story of watching her mother die is bookended by quirkier scenes overlaid with original klezmer music. Her methodical gefilte fish preparation is particularly memorable, as is her visit to a prison that moves several inmates to tears.
Some stylistic choices are clunky. Platitude-laden interviews with Sonia’s children, Warshawski’s father and aunts, feel amateur, puzzlingly set against a uniform black background like a Powerpoint presentation. The same vapid pop folk song blandly overlays several “uplifting” moments. But the intermittent animation — made up of deceptively innocent paper doll worlds — is cogent and disturbing, reserved for sketching out Sonia’s harrowing memories of years spent in death camps.
“…the 91-year-old holocaust survivor’s courage and joie de vivre are enormously prominent in her granddaughter’s loving documentary portrait.”
The only Holocaust survivor speaking out in her city, Sonia was inspired to share her story after hearing about “skinhead” deniers. The filming predated the height of this past year’s neo-Nazi resurgence, and Sonia’s mission takes on a new significance in the wake of alt-right crusades. Warshawski’s ancestral closeness to her talented tailor subject is palpable, and lends the film a crucial sense of intimacy. For all of its interest in widening Sonia’s story, in emphasizing the necessity of speaking publicly about Holocaust atrocities, Big Sonia is also a warm celebration of one woman’s astonishing resilience and big heart.
Big Sonia (2017) Directors Todd Soliday, Leah Warshawski. Writer Eric Frith (story). Starring Sonia Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Caroline Kennedy.