For as long as Elizabeth Rynecki can remember, the paintings hung in her grandparents’ and parents’ homes. These paintings, by her prolific great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943), documented the everyday routine and special occasions of a Polish-Jewish community in Warsaw, Poland, prior to World War II. “I understood from an early age,” Elizabeth said, “that his art connected me to a history that, while not exactly my own, still overshadowed my life.”
Inspired by a note from her grandfather, Elizabeth began searching for Moshe’s paintings. Her quest resulted in a website, a nonfiction book, Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for her Lost Art Legacy, and a documentary of the same name.
Chasing Portraits, the film, will be released by First Run Features in 2019. It opens in New York City on April 26 and Los Angeles on May 17. The trailer appears at the end of this interview.
Tell me about the beginnings of Chasing Portraits, the book and the film.
The long and winding story goes like this: In the late 90s I built the first version of the “Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art” website. In 2005, YouTube came online and I thought it might be interesting to make a short about my great-grandfather’s art. My older son was in school with a boy whose father was a documentary filmmaker. I went to him for advice and he suggested I might have enough material for a documentary. I’ve always loved documentary film and, because it’s such a visual story, I thought it was a great idea.
A cinematographer and I began shooting in 2008 and cut a proof-of-concept piece a year later. Then I wrote an NEH grant proposal and I was sure it would be funded. It was not. I was devastated, but determined to still tell the story. I decided to shelve the film project and instead, write a book, because I could do that without funding. But a funny thing happened—once I got the book deal with Penguin Random House, I gained more credibility and was invited to speak at more venues, which helped me secure the funding needed to finish the film. Ultimately, it seemed important, and possible, to do both.
Did one inform that other?
Yes! They did influence one another. Much of the book was written while I was in production and that gave me the ability to immediately reflect on various events as they unfolded. One example of this is when I faced difficult negotiations with the woman in Israel who possesses some of my great-grandfather’s paintings—she wouldn’t let me visit them. I made a lot of decisions on how to handle this situation based on how I thought it would make me look on screen and on the written page.
The inevitable question: which is better, the book or the movie?
I am definitely sensitive about this question. They are different storytelling mediums and each has its own strengths and weaknesses. I knew the book needed to ground readers in my family’s WWII history, but I didn’t want to make a Holocaust film; I wanted to make a next-generation film. I don’t think one medium is more emotional or immediate than the other, but there are different elements that speak to people on the page versus what they see, feel, and hear while watching film.
Chasing Portraits is your first film. Do you have any advice for the novice filmmaker?
My advice, excluding any financial advice, is to persist, and persevere, and to remember that it takes a team to make a film. To quote Wayne Gretzky: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take.” Work hard, believe in your project, and be open to feedback and ideas that will help you make a better film. Also, read a lot of books across different genres, watch films outside your area of expertise and interest, ask questions, ask for help, and when you make mistakes (because you will!), own up to them and find a way to get things right. Plus, don’t be afraid to edit, because not every piece of footage deserves to be in your film.
Many people say that a film is born in editing. Did you find that to be true?
In my humble and limited experience, I absolutely agree! We knew the general premise of Chasing Portraits, but when we started post-production, we were at a loss for the story arc. There were 100-plus hours of footage when I stopped filming and when the editor whittled it down to 3 hours of selects, we had great material but no compelling storyline. There were too many details and we got sidetracked by an approach that worked for the book (and was never going to work for the movie). But then we stepped back from it all and came to an incredibly profound realization—yes, the film was about the art and my quest for my great-grandfather’s lost paintings, but it was the father-daughter relationship that held it together.
Did you ever question whether or not to be in the film?
I never thought I’d be in the film. It was supposed to be a film about my great-grandfather’s art, but early on I discovered a few interesting things: people loved the art, but they felt a connection to me and wanted to be part of my journey. One way to give intimate access to my experience was to put myself on screen. It definitely takes a lot of chutzpah to put yourself in your own film because it assumes audiences care about you and want to spend that much time with you.
Were you uncomfortable at first? Did it take getting used to?
You really have to be prepared to feel vulnerable and to not take criticism too personally. My editing team taught me to talk about “Screen Elizabeth,” which helped give me a small way to disconnect from reliving emotional moments over, again and again, during editing. And quite honestly, there are certain scenes where I don’t exactly hate Screen Elizabeth, although I am occasionally disappointed in the questions she asks, or the look she gives in response to an interviewee’s comment.
I can’t imagine what it must have been like to interview your father about his experience as a Polish Jewish child during World War II. What was that experience like?
The first interview I did with my dad in 2008 wasn’t quite a disaster, but I hated it. His answers felt rehearsed and stiff and I wasn’t exactly myself either. We were both trying to find a way to be comfortable in front of a film crew. I often get asked if making the film changed Dad. It didn’t change him at all.
I’m surprised to hear that. It seemed he went from keeping the experience locked down to being able to talk about it more, like in the recording studio scene.
My dad still does not like to talk about the war years. What changed was his level of comfort in front of the camera.
I asked my dad into the studio because I was trying to give the audience insight—not into the content of what he was reading (although that was an added bonus), but into the fact that my father struggles emotionally with his history and memories. There’s this notion that all survivors want to bear witness and tell their stories. Many do not, and I think that’s important for people to know.
Your great-grandfather created about 800 works and about 200 can be accounted for. If that many survived, it seems likely that there are more out there. This leads me to wonder if the search for more paintings will ever be completed?
I expect that in my lifetime the tracking and documenting of my great-grandfather’s paintings will never be quite finished.
Will you continue filming and writing about your search after Chasing Portraits?
I suppose the project has become my life’s work, and I’m honored to track the story and share it, but I’m also rather exhausted by it. I’d like to work on something else, but have not yet been able to move onto the next project. I’m hoping 2020 is the year I work on something not about the art, the war, or my family’s history.
My sons often tease me about a sequel. I don’t think there’s a need for a sequel. I feel like I told the heart of the story in the book and the film. I have this crazy idea that it would make a great play. I also would very much like to see the artwork exhibited, but that’s another project that has been an uphill battle. Jewish art museums tell me the art is beautiful but that it tells a Holocaust story and they don’t do Holocaust exhibits. Conversely, the Holocaust museums tell me the art is beautiful but that they don’t exhibit fine art. It’s a conundrum I’ve never quite understood. Perhaps the book and film will bring about a change of heart from these influential and important institutions. Art speaks volumes and is part of a history that should be told, seen, and heard.
Director, producer, and writer Elizabeth Rynecki is the great-granddaughter of Polish-Jewish artist, Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943). She grew up with her great-grandfather’s paintings prominently displayed on the walls of her family home and understood from an early age that the art connected her to a legacy from “the old country:” Poland. In 1999, Elizabeth designed the original “Moshe Rynecki: Portrait of a Life in Art” website. Elizabeth has a BA in Rhetoric from Bates College (’91) and an MA in Rhetoric and Communication from UC Davis (’94). Her Master’s thesis focused on children of Holocaust survivors. Her book, also titled Chasing Portraits, was published by Penguin Random House in September 2016.
If you enjoyed finding out about Chasing Portraits, you might also enjoy David Licata’s interview with Xavier Burgin.