Filmed with great respect and palpable love for its subject, “Big Sonia” is one of those documentaries that seems to bring its own light — just like the woman at its center. 4 stars out of 4.
At first glance, 90-year-old Sonia Warshawski could be anyone’s grandma. A tiny, stooped woman with an exuberant head of hairsprayed curls and a fondness for leopard prints, she makes her first appearance in the documentary “Big Sonia” handing out chocolate bars and urging her granddaughter to put on a sweater. But Sonia’s story is remarkable, and she’s one of the few remaining to tell it; how fortunate we all are that the listening granddaughter — Leah Warshawski, a Seattleite visiting Sonia’s Kansas City home — is a filmmaker.
“If there is hell, I was in that hell,” Sonia says softly in “Big Sonia,” speaking in a radio interview on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen death camp, at the end of World War II. Sonia was there — it was the final of three camps to which Nazis delivered her. Arrested at 13 at her home in Poland, she was separated from most of her family (she never saw her father again, and later watched her mother walk to the gas chambers) and spent her teenage years imprisoned. Beaten, starved and abused, she nonetheless survived. “I don’t carry hate,” she says, “but I cannot forget.”
Much of “Big Sonia” is devoted to the extraordinarily moving spectacle of Sonia’s public speaking about her experiences — she’s motivated, as is her family, to making sure all of us never forget. On the radio, at schools and in prisons, the effect of her quiet words is enormous; you’ll see many tears in this film, while quite possibly shedding your own.
Movie Review ★★★★
‘Big Sonia,’ a documentary directed by Leah Warshawski and Todd Soliday. 93 minutes. Not rated; suitable for general audiences. SIFF Film Center, through Thursday. Q&As will follow the screenings at 7:15 p.m. Feb. 9, and 2:45 p.m., 5 p.m. and 7:15 p.m. Feb. 10.
Meanwhile, a present-day drama unfolds in Sonia’s life: She’s losing the lease on the tailoring shop she’s operated for many decades, as the once-bustling Kansas City mall in which it’s located is now eerily quiet. But Sonia doesn’t want to retire; she needs to work, she says, so as not to dwell on her life’s “dark spot.”
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Filmed with great respect and palpable love for its subject, “Big Sonia” is one of those documentaries that seems to bring its own light — just like the woman at its center. “Try to put love in your heart. Try to help others,” urges Sonia, to those moved by her story. “You will become a different person.”