November 21, 2016. DOC NYC concluded its run of incredible documentaries this past Thursday, November 17. Even though the festival has ended, I am still making my way through the screener links sent to me from the festival’s publicist. These screener links enable me to watch DOC NYC documentaries online, as opposed to having to attend screenings in person. While I am a big advocate of seeing films in theaters with, hopefully, respectful audience members who do not talk, or need to check their smart phones every five minutes, screener links fit nicely into my all too busy schedule.
Of the DOC NYC documentaries that I have seen so far, and about which I have written during the past two weeks, “Big Sonia” more than rises to the standards of this festival. It is not only a fascinating documentary with a terrific main character in Sonia Warshawski (yes, even documentaries must have great characters) but a documentary that should be seen in light of our current political climate. In other words, those who forget history will repeat it.
Sonia Warshawski is an 89-year-old Holocaust survivor, who lives in Kansas City. She takes every opportunity to tell her story of survival in a series of concentration camps, from ages 13 – 19, starting in Poland in 1939. Sonia’s inspiration comes from having once seen a modern day skinhead. She realized then that she had survived the Holocaust in order to tell others what had happened to her.
Sonia works full time, six days a week, as the sole proprietor, and only employee, of “John’s Tailoring,” a tailor shop started by her late husband. “John’s Tailoring” is the only store still open in an otherwise closed, ghost town like, shopping mall. Sonia’s need to work and to be in touch with others – her customers, family and those to whom she tells her story – is part of her need not to think of the horrors she has endured. “I keep myself always busy,” she explains. In addition, Sonia makes a mean gefilte fish.
As a college sociology teacher, I interpret Sonia’s way of life as “social cohesion,” the idea that one stays in touch with one’s community. Social cohesion provides physical, as well as mental and emotional, stability, not to mention longevity, all of which are Sonia’s attributes.
In addition to Sonia herself, what also makes “Big Sonia” a great documentary is how well is has been directed by its co-directors, Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s granddaughter) and Todd Soliday. Soliday is also the film’s cinematographer, co-editor (along with Doug Loviska) and co-animator (along with Rachel Ignotofsky and Dawn Norton).
“Big Sonia” has wonderful attention to detail – the rolls of thread in the taylor shop, Sonia’s lipstick, her preference for animal prints and the drawings she makes to pass the time…that is when she is not busy. To this end, the film very intelligently and creatively uses and animates Sonia’s drawings to create animated sequences which, combined with Sonia’s narration, vividly evoke the horrors of being a Jew in Poland in 1939. The film counter-balances all of this with a great deal of humor, from Sonia as well as from those who know and love her, which seems to be everyone.
“Big Sonia” is a multi-layered portrait of an incredible personality and a true survivor. In addition, while it deals with the Holocaust, “Big Sonia” is ultimately a story that is very life affirming. Sonia states that she will not forgive that which happened to her and so many others. She believes that forgiveness has to come from somewhere higher up. Sonia explains that, “No matter what has happened to you, it doesn’t have to be the defining experience of your life.”