Big Sonia

****

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Big Sonia
"More than just a portrait of one woman's life or a remembrance of that awful time, Big Sonia is a film about history, how we carry it with us and why it matters."

Big Sonia has big hair, a big smile and a big personality. She runs a tailor's shop full of fabulous second hand clothes, wears brightly coloured lipstick and lines her car with leopard print. She's 91 and a Holocaust survivor.

They say that a good documentary hinges on making an interesting film about an interesting subject. Sometimes the subject is manifestly capable of doing all the work. Sonia is much loved by her community, with generation after generation of shoppers having visited her shop as much for her conversation and style advice as for her products and services. Now it looks as if the shop is going to be closed down. Friends worry about what will happen to her. She has been there six days a week for as long as they can remember. But there's something formidable about Sonia, something that suggests she'll always find a way. She has done so even when she didn't believe it was possible.

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Directors Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski (Sonia's granddaughter) follow her through her daily routines and take in her reflections on the past. At a point where few living people remain to testify to what happened during the Holocaust, she has taken it upon herelf to become an educator. She talks about hiding in an attice, being found by soldiers with dogs. she talks about the camps and the brutal beatings she received. She talks about seeing her mother led away to the gas chambers. She has an old, worn scarf that used to belong to her mother, which she keeps with her still to make it feel as if her mother is nearby.

Is Sonia's testimony effective? We meet young people who have attended her talks and say they found them transformative. A teenage girl is visibly upset because, she says, her mother is the dearest person in the world to her, and she will always remember what Sonia has told her. A Muslim teenager says he relates to her accounts because he sees Judaism as a brother religion. What matters, says Sonia, is that they must always stand up against wrongdoing.

If there is one source of sorrow in Sonia's life it is the loss of her beloved husband, the founder of the tailor's shop. He was a man, we hear, who could tell stories about concentration camps and make people laugh. Nothing seemed to diminish his love of life. One wonders how much of Sonia's strength still comes from him.

More than just a portrait of one woman's life or a remembrance of that awful time, Big Sonia is a film about history, how we carry it with us and why it matters. It's a small film that takes on big issues and shows how individual acts of goodwill can have far-reaching consequences. Sonia is not a celebrity, a politician or a big business owner. She probably won't be around much longer; and yet, watching this, it would seem unsurprising if people were still talking about her influence in a century's time.

Reviewed on: 12 Nov 2017
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A Holocaust survivor with an outsized personality faces her biggest fear: retirement.

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DOC NYC 2016

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