Sonia Warshawski knows the exact moment when she decided to go public with her past as a survivor of Auschwitz. She was watching television and saw a group of skinhead Holocaust deniers spouting their line, and a voice in her head said, “This was the reason you survived — you have to speak for [the ones who weren’t so fortunate].”
The subject of a sprightly new documentary profile, “Big Sonia,” directed by her granddaughter Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday, Sonia is one of the most appealing figures on screen at this year’s excellent DOC-NYC festival. The event is now the largest festival of nonfiction films in America, with 110 feature-length documentaries (and 102 shorts), several of them with significant Jewish content.
Sonia is an admirable figure, remarkably devoid of bitterness, but with a balanced view of her experiences. As she tells a group of young teens whose school she visits, “I will not hate. But I won’t forgive; that’s a job for a higher power.”
Understandably, her granddaughter treats Sonia with warmth and affection, both in their on-camera interactions and in her depiction. Happily, the elder Ms. Warshawski is a witty character, a woman in her 90s who shows no inclination to slow down her daunting schedule of speaking to students in the Kansas City area and running her charmingly cluttered tailor shop/dry cleaner/jewelry and knickknack store. She is, to use her own malapropism, “bog-mindling.”
How families deal with aging heads of the tribe seems to be a running theme in this year’s festival, particularly in the Jewish films. In addition to “Big Sonia,” there is “The Wonderful Kingdom of Papa Alaev,” directed by Tal Banda and Noam Pinchas, and “Care” by Deirdre Fishel. It would be hard to imagine two more dissimilar films on the same subject, yet each is profoundly affecting.
Papa Alaev is Allo Alaev, a famous Bukharian Jewish musician from Tajikistan who made aliyah to Israel when the Soviet Union disintegrated. He gleefully announces, “I’ve been playing music since I’m 3. I performed all over the world. Life for us is music.”
Note the first-person plural in the last sentence. The film begins with his son, Ariel, recounting the story of his own first appearance before an audience, an appearance that was as much a triumph for father as for son, and there is more than a hint of tension between the two as the story is told. Papa backseat drives with everyone, suggesting repertoire for the family’s band, telling his daughter-in-law how to cook pilau, offering life-coaching tips to his grandson, urging him to marry a nice Bukharian girl.
The tensions are quite real. Amir, one of the grandsons, is jeopardizing his place in the family orchestra — he is an astonishingly virtuosic qanun player — by becoming more observant, making himself unavailable for most weekend gigs. Ada, Papa’s daughter, is thinking of taking up the qanun again herself and, with her son Zvika, a drummer and reed player, will form a new family group, the Alaev Salon.
But, surprise, Allo Alaev, for all his seemingly paternalistic bluster, welcomes the new band enthusiastically and makes space for many of the changes that the younger Alaevs fearfully propose. Papa really knows Papa best: “The meanest one is me,” he confesses, cheerfully acknowledging his driving ego. “That’s why they will succeed.”