It’s film festival week, and for my family, a time to reminisce about last year’s event. My daughter Leah and son-in-law Todd Soliday’s documentary, “Big Sonia,” won both the top jury award for Best Feature Documentary as well as an Audience Award for the film.
Sonia Warshawski, my soon-to-be 92 years young mother-in-law and centerpiece of the film, was here to celebrate. We took her dancing to Uva’s that night, and she put us all to shame with her hip-shaking moves.
The film has now joined 169 other documentaries vying for a 2018 Academy Award. This first list will be narrowed down to 15 in December followed by a final five nominations in the documentary category. (To see the film’s theatrical trailer, visit www.bigsonia.com.)
Of course we’ve been shadowing — and participating — in this arduous process for the past six-plus years. I thought it timely to ask Leah to share some of the highs and lows of what it takes to follow one’s passion in filmmaking, despite the odds.
— Why has it taken so long to complete this documentary?
“Funding — that’s the main reason. If we had all the funds as we went along, we would have been done a lot sooner. We had to fundraise — and we are still fundraising — every step of the way. Fundraising is the toughest part for most filmmakers. We have high standards for production values and quality, so we were determined to pay what we needed for services to make the film look and sound the way it does.”
“Story — our story changed during production as we uncovered new information. We started out making a short film, and when Sonia got her eviction notice [from her tailoring shop], it provided a larger story arc that we couldn’t shy away from. Also, we learned more about intergenerational trauma, and this became a bigger part of the film. We’re grateful the story changed in the ways it did because we could not be happier with the way it turned out.”
— When you began, did you know you were going to aim for an Academy Award?
“Our goal since Day 1 has always been to be ‘Academy-eligible.’ We had this in our sights but it’s not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of money, energy and support. We had a well thought-out plan on how to become eligible but it took many people believing in the project and a number of steps to make it happen. Whether we get nominated or not is out of our control, but we’re honored and proud to be eligible after so much hard work during the last six years.”
— After all this time, how do you keep your energy, passion and enthusiasm up for the film?
“Caffeine, trying to not get ahead of myself and to just take one day at a time. Our supporters and cheerleaders are excellent motivation, plus being in an audience full of people who love the film and get emotional about it inspires us to keep going. Seeing how so many people are affected by the film to change their own lives gives me energy. Sonia is almost 92, and she won’t be around forever, so we feel we have to keep the momentum going now. “
— Will the film have a life of its own, without Sonia?
“We’re already working on that with our massive community outreach and screening tours. We’re also creating an educational version with resources and curriculum guides for educators. We hope that teachers will purchase and use these to help us spread the #SoniaEffect. For all we know, Sonia might outlive all of us at the rate she’s going”!
While you’re watching films this week, please show your support for the filmmakers in attendance with a handshake or a smile. They’ve most likely put their hearts, souls and savings into what you are enjoying on screen. And, you just might be meeting a future Academy Award-winning director — if their stars are aligned!