Director Leah Warshawski documents grandmother ‘Big Sonia’

In corner of a big, empty shopping mall, a small dry cleaning shop is run by 91-year-old Sonia Warshawski. A pillar in her community, beloved by her loyal customers, she is also a Holocaust survivor using the limited free time she has to speak to schools (and prisoners) about her tragic past. Filmmaker Leah Warshawski, Sonia’s granddaughter, thought there could be a short film about her grandmother and her small shop. But as she followed Sonia through her day-to-day life and heard the story of her youth first-hand, she found a fascinating story and new image of her grandmother.

Read FF2 Media’s review of Big Sonia HERE.

Lesley Coffin: What motivated you to make a documentary like this?

Leah Warshawski: Initially, we were just going to make a short film about her and her shop. We knew the shop, in the corner of this dead mall, was an interesting place. We knew people who were coming weren’t coming for tailoring, they were coming because of Sonia. And I knew she’d be an engaging on screen presence. We’d actually just finished our first short film and we needed a break, so a short film sounded like a good idea at the time. But that turned into a six and half year project.

Lesley Coffin: How did you and your co-director divide up the work as a directors?

Leah Warshawski: Todd is my husband, we got married halfway through the making of the film. I’m more of a producer-director and he’s more the director-cinematographer-editor, which works really well. We have clear roles and not much crossover. Because Todd’s not an immediate member of the family and Sonia responds well to him, there were times when she felt more comfortable talking with him than with me, because it was too emotional.

Lesley Coffin: You also feature your father in the documentary, who discusses the very difficult relationship he had with his mother. What was it like comparing the memories he had of her with the woman you were spending all this time with?

Leah Warshawski: I’ve only recently really gotten to know my grandmother, it was through the process of making this film. My dad really was traumatized by his mother, and kept my sister and I away from that part of his life. A lot of issues were so difficult for him to talk about and he wanted to protect us from something harmful. There is a scene when he lets his guard down and breaks down, which was completely unexpected for me. I’ve never talked to him about that before and it was obvious that he was dealing with a lot of pain. That one scene we never intended to include in the film, but over the years of going back and editing, it was clear that we needed to comment on inner-generational trauma. It became a big theme in the movie, and it’s a theme a lot of people relate to.

Lesley Coffin: What was it like to observe your grandmother in the community without family around her?

Leah Warshawski: Well, there’s certainly a dichotomy between the woman my father knew and the woman the community sees now. It’s been a joy to see the impact she has on the rest of the world. She’s so unique, I felt honored to get to know her in that element, but also conflicted because of my dad.

Lesley Coffin: When did you decided to use animation to retell her experiences during the Holocaust?

Leah Warshawski: As soon as we knew we were going to include sections of her recounting that time period, we knew we needed to do it in a way which didn’t require us to use stock footage and photographs. I didn’t want to make a typical Holocaust film, and we wanted to reach a younger audience. In a few years, all the survivors who have told their story will be gone and we need films like this to educated younger people long after. We’ve actually created an educational version with a curriculum guide. It also allowed us to incorporate her doodles and keep that section of the film in her voice. We’ve had a number of parents come up to us after and tell us they appreciate that we didn’t use archival footage, because they’re more comfortable bringing their children.

Lesley Coffin: How did things change and evolve during this six-year period of making the film?

Leah Warshawski: Our initial idea was just a short film, until we started following her into schools and the prison to give these talks. That’s when we realized the film would have to be a little bigger. But once she got the eviction notice that was the turning point. We found our story arc. We didn’t know what would happen, but we knew she’d survive. I think we realized later that we had multiple themes, and tried really hard to marry them all together.

Lesley Coffin: What was the biggest lesson you learned making this film?

Leah Warshawski: I learned making a film about your family is really difficult. There are so many layers of emotional drama that come with it, that have nothing to do with the challenges of making a film. I didn’t see that coming, but it just kept building up. But learning who she is, and traveling with her, I’ve seen her in a completely different way. I see the Sonia Effect she has on people when she’s out in the world.

Lesley Coffin: Where did the title come from?

Leah Warshawski: She’s only 4’8”, so she isn’t big in stature. But she’s big in every other way. She has a big heart, big personality, big hair, and a big car. She stands very tall in the world.  

© Lesley Coffin (11/21/17) FF2 Media

Photos: Big Sonia

Photo Credits: Leah Warshawski © 2016 Inflatable Film LLC

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