“SONIA” recounts the life of Sofia (Sonia) Dymshitz-Tolstaya, a brilliant painter and visionary born into a Jewish St. Petersburg family in 19th century Russia. We hear of Sonia’s loneliness as a young, locked-away lovebird, as a mother during World War II, as an artist struggling under Stalin, and later, ever more alone, invigorating a Communist genre with her sense of generous feminism and beauty. Her tableaux are shockingly accomplished, blending the accepted form of Social Realism with a humanistic, life-affirming vision.
I spoke with filmmaker Lucy Kostelanetz (Sonia’s great-niece) in her Manhattan studio. Lucy spent more than fifteen years preparing “SONIA.” Her commitment alights from every frame of this gorgeous, ambitious film.
I asked Lucy Kostelanetz about her great-aunt Sonia’s artistic career:
Sonia painted what she saw. She went out to the countryside and got to know her subjects, the workers, which was part of her style, her sincerity, and her belief in the principals of the Revolution. Her paintings are not celebrations of the happy worker. They’re loving, and they’re grim. You can really see the history of the country in her art.
Sonia worked with Vladimir Tatlin, the Constructivist leader, producing incredible art and theory, and addressing the way museums and art institutions function. She and Tatlin called themselves “Artists of Material Culture” and it was then that she made her works on glass, which art historians consider her most accomplished. A great part of her heroism as an artist to me is that despite the circumstances, and perhaps, in some inexplicable way, because of them, she managed to put herself into her work, with these propaganda paintings on glass; tract made translucent, if you will.
How did Judaism fit into Sonia’s life?
Jewishisness is sort of a submotif in the film, but it’s always there. To me her humanism is what shines and what makes her culturally very Jewish. Now, Sonia did convert to give her daughter the benefits of a Christian birth, and I can’t know how conflicted she was, yet she converted back to Judaism in 1917, which to me was a return to her true selfhood.
I was very interested in how Sonia mediated the differences between the ideology and reality of Communism, how, with her heart and soul invested in the Revolution, she came to terms with its realities. I wonder if her Jewishness wasn’t part of this reckoning.
How long did “SONIA” take you to make?
The idea occurred in 1991, when Sonia’s granddaughter gave me her memoirs. My first shoot was at the Guggenheim Museum in 1992 at a show called “The Great Utopia,” on the Russian Avant-Garde. The USSR broke up and in 1994 I went back to research, and stayed with family. At first, the art historians and curators were very disparaging of her work, and then all of a sudden they were interested in her. Every story opened up to something else, and in 1999, Final Cut Pro (computer software) unburdened me of many time-consuming technical issues.
I still feel there’s more art. At the Russian Museum alone, they’ve been discovering more paintings. In fact I’ve learned there exist at least four more, but they need thorough conservation.
Would you tell us more about the process of bringing still photographs to life?
I would make the storyboards and give them to Jared Dubrino, who did the motion graphics. Matthew Lutz-Kinoy’s drawing and collage added a level of visual complexity to the film. George Griffin was our animator, and Todd Sines designed three unique fonts for the film. And he named one after me, Kostelanetz Modern Bold!
To learn more, please visit www.soniathemovie.com.