Students at Port Townsend High School got an early lead-in to the Port Townsend Film Festival’s “Women & Film” program April 12-14, when the PTHS auditorium hosted a talk by Leah Warshawski, director of the 2016 documentary “Big Sonia.”
Holocaust survivor Sonia Warshawski, Leah’s grandmother, is still chugging along in her 90s, three years after her big-screen debut, and the Port Townsend Education Foundation invited Leah Warshawski to speak to the Friday Salon Lecture April 12 about the process of filmmaking and the continued relevance of her grandmother’s story.
Warshawski recalled how “Big Sonia” premiered one day after the presidential election in 2016, and while she admitted she had not expected its outcome, she saw her film as a means to encourage greater empathy, while also offering a memorably offbeat portrait of her grandmother.
“I had no idea this would be as relevant as it is,” Warshawski said.
Warshawski noted that not even half of all states have made Holocaust education mandatory, while the PTHS students complimented “Big Sonia” for telling its title character’s story with more quirks and experimentalism than the typical Holocaust lessons, which they agreed made it stand out from other documentaries on Holocaust survivors.
Part of making the film required Warshawski to explore her own family’s “intergenerational pain,” which included editing back in a scene of her father crying, which she’d removed until others told her it needed to be part of the film.
“The only other time I’d seen him cry was in Israel,” Warshawski said, adding that she tasked her husband with asking her father’s permission to reinstate the clip. “He said, ‘I don’t like it, but I trust you.’”
Warshawski admitted that she was unsure she would have kept the same will to live as her grandmother did, much less adopted the relatively sunny disposition of her later years.
“There’s no way you can’t ask yourself, ‘How would I have dealt with this?’” Warshawski said. “I can’t let myself think it could happen again. I couldn’t handle it emotionally.”
Warshawski cited the 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, as a “turning point” for both her and Sonia.
While they were both horrified to see Nazi symbols flown so openly, Warshawski said Sonia has become even more committed to “speaking her truth,” and even offering a message of hope.
“Plus, I think she enjoys being a movie star,” Warshawski said with a laugh. “She’s always wanted to be.”