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BIG SONIA (2017) review

November 18, 2017

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written by: Eric Frith
produced by: Leah Warshawski
directed by: Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski
rated: not rated
runtime: 93 min.
U.S. release date: November 17, 2017 (limited)

 

Why is the documentary that follows the diminutive 91-year-old Sonia Warshowski called “Big Sonia”? It obviously has nothing to do with her stature, but rather everything to do with her character. As the film progresses, we see her youthful vigor and independent resilience, yet it’s her “big” heart – along with her generosity, vulnerability and openness – that will confirm why she such a compelling subject. However, there are revelatory reasons why this documentary, directed by Todd Soliday and Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, was made and those reasons tell a heartbreaking and inspiring story that takes place in the past and present. 

The Seattle-based Warshawski introduces us to her grandmother, who single-handedly runs a tailor shop six-days-a-week in the seemingly abandoned Metcalfe South shopping mall outside of Kansas City. In her shop, which services the typical dry-cleaning and clothing repair needs, Sonia has had a steady stream of local customers for decades, all of whom benefit from her alteration services, along with her emporium of classic couture she sells with a great amount of zeal and passion. She is everyone’s friend, investing her time and energy in her customers (all of whom develop a friendship with Sonia that elevates well beyond a typical customer relationship, one patron calls her shop “the neighborhood bar and grill minus the booze.”), even the mall security guard has developed a bond with the savvy seamstress over the years. All of that makes Sonia an endearing character to get to know, but what’s most compelling is her backstory and how she uses it today to help others.

 

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No doubt her teen years were spent in a much different setting than any of the film’s viewers. In the early 1940s at age 13, she observed from an attic window as her neighbors were being rounded up and dragged off to concentration camps in the Polish city of Miedzyrzec . Of course, at that age she didn’t know or understand that, nor did she realize what transpired at such atrocious places, but it was apparent something wasn’t right when she and her family hid from the Nazis in their home. When the trained SS dogs tracked then down, Sonia’s family was also dragged out and separated from each other. She never saw her father and brothers again and her life would forever be changed when Sonia and her mother wound up as prisoners at Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. Then at age 17, Sonia saw her mother for the last time, as she entered a gas chamber, leaving her to somehow miraculously survive and eventually make her way to the States.

Sonia’s story is undoubtedly a devastating and emotional one, but it’s also quite an unbelievable one when you consider her optimistic disposition she’s become known for. When she became aware that there were white supremacists fanning the flames of Holocaust deniers, Sonia became motivated to do something about such erroneous propaganda. Being one of the only Holocaust survivors in the Kansas City area, Sonia set out to share her past experiences with the public with the help of her daughter, Regina. “Big Sonia” follows her as holds captive a high school assembly, who learn of her ordeal as a teen and how she’s been able to replace hate with love, emphasizing that she leaves forgiveness to “a higher power”. Her appearances are a form or catharsis for Sonia, but what she winds up giving to her recipients – many of whom circle up and share their own hardships with her after her presentations – is life-changing and immensely inspiring.

You can see how Sonia comes to life by providing a listening ear to teens who’ve lost loved ones or prison inmates who are humbled by her perspective on life, but she remains humbled and grateful for these opportunities. Seeing a teenage girl share her gratitude to Sonia through tears and an African-American inmate thank Sonia for sharing her story, are moments that brought me to tears, especially when one girl states how face-time with Sonia helped her realize the value in a social media-free connection. One inmate notices the tattooed number on Sonia’s arm, stating it’s much different from the number he wears on his prison uniform. Soliday and Warshawski know how endearing Sonia will be for viewers, but it’s in observing these moments where she connects with a different generation, who are far removed from Nazi atrocities, that we see the impact their subject is making.

 

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The directors steer clear of hagiography by giving Sonia’s children room to share some of the challenges of growing up with their mother. One daughter shares how bad she felt as a teenager when she would complain, realizing her mother’s teen years were far worse. Sonia’s son, Morrie, reflects on the tone of his childhood and how he later became aware that he and his siblings weren’t as “natural and free” as their peers. How the trauma of the Holocaust effects the children of survivor”s could make for its own documentary and is an interesting, rarely touched upon subject.

The years of love and energy Sonia spent working at the tailor shop her late husband John (who was also a Holocaust survivor) started was a therapeutic way of coping with the horrors from her past, but it’s her time spent with those who hear her story today that provides her with a fulfilling and satisfying sense of purpose. Her harrowing backstory is told using animation that become an extension of Sonia’s own artistic doodles and balance out the talking heads often associated with such a film.

“Big Sonia” serves to remind us that the seniors that live among us have much to offer and each one has endured hardships and challenges that can be beneficial to those around them. Sonia Warshawski is proof of one such senior and both her past story and present life is an inspiration that should call us to live a life of gratitude. One of the reasons the film was made is because the number of Holocaust survivor’s are dwindling and I couldn’t agree more with the need for such a story.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

 

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