In honor of Holocaust Remembrance Day, we chatted with filmmaker Leah Warshawski about her film ‘Big Sonia’ which tells the story of Leah’s grandmother, who is a Holocaust Survivor.
“In the last store in a defunct shopping mall, 91-year-old Sonia Warshawski – great-grandmother, businesswoman, and Holocaust survivor – runs the tailor shop she’s owned for more than 30 years. But when she’s served an eviction notice, the specter of retirement prompts Sonia to resist her harrowing past as a refugee and witness to genocide. A poignant story of generational trauma and healing, BIG SONIA also offers a laugh-out-loud-funny portrait of the power of love to triumph over bigotry, and the power of truth-telling to heal us all.”
BF: Can you tell us a bit about yourself and where you are from?
LW: I’m a producer/director currently based in Maui and Sun Valley, Idaho. I grew up in the midwest and went to college a few places before landing at the University of Hawai’i where I got a BA in the Japanese Language.
BF: How did you begin the process of making this film? Did you think about making it for a long time before actually beginning the production process?
LW: We began making BIG SONIA in 2009 after my husband visited Sonia’s tailor shop for the first time. We had talked among our family about filming Sonia and her shop as a reality show or a comedy but after Todd came to visit he agreed that there are stories in the shop that need to be captured. We didn’t have any funding at the time so we just started filming on our own every time we were in Kansas City. At the time Sonia was 84 and we didn’t know how much longer she would be healthy enough to film, so we wanted to start quickly. (She’s currently 97 and still going strong!)
BF: Do you have any fond memories from making the film?
LW: Too many to mention…But one of my favorite memories is having Sonia with us at the festival world premiere where we won both Best Doc and Audience Awards. Sonia was beside herself and she came to a wrap party with us and danced all night long. Having these kinds of experiences and being able to travel with Sonia during the festival circuit was a huge joy for me because we never did this when I was younger. So I feel like our relationship grew because of the festivals and audience reactions to the film.
BF: Sonia Warshawshi is your grandmother, can you tell us a bit about how it was to make a film about your family?
LW: This is tough to answer quickly, but I did a TEDx talk about some of the issues that came up. You can watch the TED talk here.
BF: Overall, since it’s been a few years since the movie was released, what was the reception of the film like? Do you feel it is still current?
LW: As long as there is still so much hate in the world BIG SONIA will remain current. The film won 22 awards and went to hundreds of film festivals. BIG SONIA is also currently on PBS around the country through 2025, where we have an audience of millions of viewers. We had no idea the film would be so relevant today but we’re still getting notes daily from people who say the film changed their lives.
BF: In an interview from a few years ago you mentioned how you nor your family has gone to visit any of the concentration camps, is this still the case?
LW: That’s correct – we still have not gone. Covid definitely made travel harder and now it’s really not a priority for any of us to go and see it first-hand. Too much trauma there to re-visit.
BF: What advice would you give documentary filmmakers starting out?
LW: Play the long game: Films usually take at least 3-5 times as long as you think they will to finish. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t be discouraged by rejection: If you feel like your film needs to be made you’re doing to do it anyway! The Universe will bring unexpected wins along the way. Be patient. Grants are very competitive and take a long time: If you need to raise funds quickly I recommend taking a hard look at the people you know within 6 degrees of separation and get ready to make personal asks. Don’t offer anyone a return on their investment – docs typically don’t make any money. If you break even you’ve done a great job!
BF: What are you working on now, or is there anything coming up in the future?
LW: Currently finishing a short doc about a non-traditional surf instructor on Maui and a feature doc about a luthier based on Maui who just made his 1,000th instrument. Lots of projects on our website: www.inflatablefilm.com