Sometimes, it takes going through immense pain and suffering to make one truly appreciate every moment of the life they’ve been blessed with. Other times, these same people who have experienced tremendous hardships, yet still smile at life, can profoundly touch the lives of others. In multiple award-winning documentary, “Big Sonia” (available on Epoch Cinema), these two facets can occur at the same time within the same person—a rare and beautiful thing indeed.
Filmmaking team (and husband and wife) Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski bring us an entrancing, in-depth character study of Leah’s grandmother, Sonia Warshawski, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and proprietor of her late husband’s tailoring store, “John’s Tailor Shop,” located in a dilapidated mall in Overland Park, Kansas. The store is a very important part of Sonia’s life.
Indeed, six days out of the week, the spunky pint-sized diva gets all gussied up—wearing bright red lipstick and carefully stylized hair—and makes her regular drive to the store, all the while barely being able to see over her plush, leopard skin-patterned steering wheel.
Sonia Warshawski in “Big Sonia” (Inflatable Film)
Almost immediately, you’ll feel Sonia’s fierce-yet-loving personality beaming through the screen at you and wonder why she’s such an unusual spirit. The reasons are both haunting and wonderful and ultimately make for a documentary that will draw you in, and stay with you long after its ending credits roll.
Sonia grew up in a Jewish family in Poland. When she was just 13 years old, her family was sniffed out by German soldiers with German Shepherds and carted off. She was beaten numerous times as she was rotated through three different death camps—never to see her father or brother again. She did, however, witness her mother being led into a gas chamber to have her life snuffed out. Sonia considers it a miracle she ever made it out of that hellish experience alive.
Over the years, Sonia has learned to own her life story. She finds the prospect of retiring a terrifying one and likes to stay busy to keep her more painful memories from overwhelming her, including the death of John many years prior due to Alzheimer’s complications.
Sonia Warshawski giving one of her highly inspirational speeches in “Big Sonia” (Inflatable Film)
As I wrote in a similar documentary, “Finding Manny,” about another Holocaust survivor, you wouldn’t expect someone who experienced such extreme horrors in their past to have such an unwaveringly positive and compassionate outlook on life—let alone have the capacity and fortitude to help others. Indeed, when Sonia’s not working at the store she’s been operating for over 30 years, she’s out visiting various places such as schools, churches, and prisons as an inspirational speaker.
Her reputation reaches far and wide and her speaking presentations are phenomenal to behold—not only because of the heartfelt passion she radiates but the profound effect her words have on others. Her powerful messages impact the lives of disparate populations; everyone from prison inmates (whom the rest of society has turned its back on), to young students. As one prison inmate astutely points out, “It takes people who been through something, to reach people who are going through something.”
Like a master tailor, the film weaves together multiple threads—we see not only the transformative effect she has on others, but the constituent parts that make up her life, such as how she maintains her store (by herself); an eviction notice from the mall’s owners that threatens to close down her store; how her adult children perceive her, and even intimate moments such as Sonia carefully holding the remains of her mother’s scarf. These parts form a larger gestaltic tapestry—an intriguing pattern that is larger than the sum of its threads.
Sonia Warshawski has touched the lives of people from many different backgrounds. “Big Sonia” (Inflatable Film)
This is a very well-made film and flows with a gradual pace and builds each scene upon the strength of previous scenes. By the end of its one hour, 33-minute running time, I sat in my chair, stunned yet inspired. It has instantly become one of my favorite documentaries and consider it to be a panacea to all of the hatred, cynicism, and egocentrism that permeates our modern society. Be prepared to chuckle, shed a tear or five, and think more deeply about your life.
In the end, I’d practically consider “Big Sonia” to be mandatory watching in the tumultuous and challenging times that we all currently find ourselves in. After all, anyone who can transform self-absorbed teenagers into self-reflective, selfless individuals who want to help others, has got to be doing something right. It’s available to watch on Epoch Cinema.
Watch “Big Sonia” on Epoch Cinema here.
Directors: Todd Soliday, Leah Warshawski Running Time: 1 hour, 33 minutes MPAA Rating: Not Rated Release Date: Nov. 9, 2016 Rated: 5 stars out of 5
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
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