2017 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – BIG SONIA
BIG SONIA is a survivor’s story. As a teen, Sonia Warshawski survived the Holocaust and subsequently married, moved to America, raised a family, and helped run a small tailor shop. Now, in her nineties, she’s one of the last few witnesses to the Holocaust and her Kansas City tailor shop is the lone survivor in a shopping mall headed towards extinction.
As directed by Todd Soliday and Sonia’s granddaughter, Leah Warshawski, BIG SONIA is an admiring portrait of a small woman who has stood up to some mammoth travails and is undaunted, although not unmarked, by her experiences. Sonia is a small woman with a big personality too, which helps the film past some of the problems the film has due to lack of conflict, everyone seems to be instantly won over by Sonia through her public speaking and more intimate interactions, and an unconvincing present day threat, what will Sonia do if the mall finally closes?, which makes for a better metaphor than a crisis.
If it can’t quite muster a larger narrative drama, BIG SONIA makes up for it in intimacy. Perhaps because a filmmaker is part of the family the movie really feels candid. In particular, the film finds new territory in not just mining the horrific Holocaust experiences, but looking at the long-term effects on generations of a family. Sonia’s children have a story to tell too, and that provides a larger and fresh context to the subject matter. Perhaps most affecting is when Sonia’s son breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother long ago. The question at the center of the film is who will carry on telling the story of Sonia once she is gone, and it answers that with a look at the family and others influenced by Sonia. Not to mention, the film is a document in and of itself.
BIG SONIA breaks no ground in terms of form, but it’s a convincing, heartfelt character study and something of a historical document. In dealing with important subject matter in a personal way, it succeeds in bringing its larger message to an immediately relatable level.
BIG SONIA is showing at the Milwaukee Film Festival under the DOCUMENTARY FESTIVAL FAVORITES program. BIG SONIA will be playing twice more at the 2017 Milwaukee Festival. The next screening is Saturday, October 7, 2017 at 10:30 am at the Times Cinema followed by a final screening on Thursday, October 12, 2017 at 2:30 pm at the Times Cinema. Tickets can be purchased online at the Milwaukee Film Festival website or at box office locations at various venues. The 2017 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from September 28 to October 12, 2017.