Credit Gloria Baker Feinstein/Argot Pictures
Sonia Warshawski, a Holocaust survivor who lives in Kansas City, Kan., is the star and subject of the documentary “Big Sonia” — now 91, she’s had time to accumulate character. When we meet Sonia, her tailor shop is the last remaining business in a deserted mall. She parks her Oldsmobile in a no-parking zone every morning. She loves leopard print, marveling that it never goes out of style.
But between shop duties, speaking engagements and gefilte fish preparation, Sonia recounts her memories as a witness to senseless murders, including the death of her own mother in the gas chambers. Sonia neither forgives nor forgets the brutality inflicted upon her during the war, and her recollections are forcefully raw despite the habit she’s made of sharing them. After more than 70 years, she still sleeps with her mother’s scarf inside her pillow.
Trailer: ‘Big Sonia’
Sonia is a powerful subject, but “Big Sonia” brings little perspective to her story. The film’s directors, Leah Warshawski (Sonia’s granddaughter) and Todd Soliday, find promising observations in interviews with Sonia’s children, who describe as adults what it was like to grow up with traumatized parents. But too often, interviewees appear trapped by their own inarticulacy, lacking interviewers who will push them toward insight. The narrative focus flits, like its subject, from one engagement to the next, never sitting long enough with any scene to encourage much thought about it. For Sonia, restlessness is an essential coping mechanism, a way to keep her mind on the present. For the film, adapting this strategy becomes a way to fill time at the expense of understanding.