A Conversation With ‘Chasing Portraits’ Director Elizabeth Rynecki

Chasing Portraits is Bay Area director Elizabeth Rynecki’s feature debut, which follows the recovery of her Polish-Jewish great-grandfather Moshe Rynecki’s lost artwork. Moshe Rynecki perished in the Majdanek concentration camp; therefore, Rynecki’s journey throughout Poland is both personal and informative regarding Poland’s current relationship with it’s Jewish population. Rynecki chatted with us about her identity as a filmmaker, the representation of Jewish women, her connection to the Bay Area and the film’s reception in Warsaw before the screening of Chasing Portraits at the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, July 19–August 5, 2018.

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Filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki in ‘Chasing Portraits’

JFI: Chasing Portraits is your first film. Do you see yourself as a filmmaker now and was your interest in making a film specifically related to your family story.

Rynecki: I’ve always loved documentary films and, now that I’ve made one, I suppose I am a filmmaker. But I feel like the word filmmaker gives me too much credit: I couldn’t have completed this project without the amazing team that helped me navigate the whole process. My interest in making the film was in large part due to the enormous obligation I felt to tell the story of my great-grandfather’s paintings. I wrote the book version of Chasing Portraits first, when the fund-raising portion of the filmmaking process seemed like an insurmountable obstacle. Ultimately, the book deal with Penguin Random House gave me the credibility I needed to raise the funds needed to finish the film. I feel both fortunate and immensely proud to have finished the film and am honored to be able to give voice to a story that needed to be told.

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Filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki (center) in ‘Chasing Portraits’

“My interest in making the film was in large part due to the enormous obligation I felt to tell the story of my great-grandfather’s paintings.”

JFI: How do you see the representation of women in Moshe’s artwork? It seems painted with a very interesting, even loving eye, full of color.

Rynecki: My great-grandfather was an ethnographer of sorts, painting the Polish-Jewish community that he knew so well. Many of his works focused on religious scenes, images where women are notably absent. But Moshe’s focus encompassed a broad swath of Polish-Jewish culture, so there are many others that feature women sewing, playing with children in the park, doing laundry, painting toys, playing the piano, and ice skating. Although Moshe had a great affinity for documenting the everyday lives of Polish-Jews in the interwar period, he was quite humble in describing his own work. In a 1930 letter he said, “My specialty is only painting Jewish folk scenes.” While this is true, it neglects to acknowledge that he did so, as you have noted, in a loving way, full of vibrant colors.

Moshe once told his son, my Grandpa George, that “God gave me talent and I truly don’t believe in breaking that natural trend. I simply have to do it [painting]. If He wouldn’t want me to paint, I wouldn’t have that tremendous urge and desire to immortalize on paper or canvas what I see. I simply am a writer of sorts — instead of words, I leave my messages in pictures. I don’t feel to trespass the Bible’s saying about images.” My great-grandfather didn’t just paint the Polish-Jewish community, he documented many aspects of its rich and vibrant community, and obviously the lives of women made up a great deal of the richness of the community.

“I hope that after seeing my great-grandfather’s art, audiences will love it and gain a better understanding of the rich and vibrant world of Polish-Jewish art that was lost during the war.”

JFI: You write on your web site about life after the War for Perla; how do you think being a woman, particularly a Jewish woman, impacted her postwar life and her struggle to find “home”?

Rynecki: In the post-War years, Poland, and especially Warsaw, suffered as it tried to rebuild not just physical buildings and bridges, but to reconstruct the whole fabric of a country — economic, political, and social — almost from scratch. Perla, my great-grandmother, couldn’t live in Warsaw itself because the city was in ruins, so for a period of time she lived in Lodz, but things there were also difficult. Perla was mostly alone after the war. Her husband, the artist, perished in the war, as did her daughter, and of course many of her friends and most of her family also died in the Holocaust.

Perla eventually came to the United States in 1953, where she joined my Dad and his parents (who had arrived 4 years earlier), but I don’t think she ever really settled in or felt completely comfortable in the States. After a few years in California she moved to Le Mans, France to live with cousins, but that was also complicated. To be displaced by war, to be a refugee, to lose everything and to try to start over is emotionally exhausting for anyone, even in the best of circumstances. And definitely being a Jewish woman in Poland after the Holocaust must have been extremely isolating. But I think the thing that made it even harder was that she was 63 when the war ended. People get set in their ways, so starting completely from scratch in her 60’s — no home, no community, with her few remaining relatives scattered across the globe, is so isolating and so overwhelming as to defy comprehension.

JFI: You grew up in the Bay Area; how did your environment here influence you? Did you find it an inspiring or empowering place?

Rynecki: I am incredibly lucky to have grown up in the Bay Area. I’m not sure which to credit more, the people I grew up around, or the Bay Area’s own diverse social, cultural, and political offerings. Both certainly shaped me without my really thinking a whole lot about it. I grew up knowing women attorneys, women mayors, and women artists and those role models were instrumental in developing my self-confidence. My teachers (a shout out to Marin Country Day School and Urban High School) all introduced me to so many different voices (e.g., Alice Walker, Studs Terkel, Dorothea Lange, Hermann Hesse, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many others), voices that showed me different ways to see and think about the world.

Perhaps the best part of living in the Bay Area is that so many amazingly smart and talented individuals live here, and so many of them have been kind enough over the years to offer me their counsel. So in that way, yes, the Bay Area is empowering because when others believe in you and help you to grow, it is so much easier to learn to set high goals and to eventually reach them.

Watch the trailer for the SFJFF38 selection ‘Chasing Portraits’

JFI: Your film is off to a great start in the world. What kind of impact do your hope the film has now that it is in distribution.

Rynecki: I don’t yet have distribution, so if someone wants to talk with me about it, I’m all ears!

Every author and filmmaker dreams that their work will reach a wide audience; they hope their story will emotionally impact their audience in a positive way. I hope that after seeing my great-grandfather’s art, audiences will love it and gain a better understanding of the rich and vibrant world of Polish-Jewish art that was lost during the war. If the film inspires audiences to be curious about their own family history, that would be ideal. I also hope that by sharing my own deeply personal experience of navigating my Holocaust legacy, audiences will begin to see how the effects of war cascade down to subsequent generations.

JFI: How was the film received in Warsaw?

Rynecki: I must admit that when I first learned the film was accepted into the Jewish Motifs Film Festival in Warsaw, I wasn’t so sure that I wanted to go to Poland. The Holocaust Law (a controversial Polish law that criminalizes the attribution of blame for Nazi crimes to Poland and which has since been slightly modified) had recently been put into place and this added to my already complex feelings and emotions about Poland.

I ultimately chose to be there for the world premiere because it seemed like a poignant moment to screen the film — to share the story of art, loss, and legacy at a social and political moment when Holocaust denial and anti-Semitism are on the rise. Fortunately, the film was well received. I had a very lively Q&A with the audience, and various audience members promised to keep an eye out for my great-grandfather’s paintings, offered me rides to visit my great-grandfather’s home town a bit outside of Warsaw, and asked me when my book would be translated into Polish.

They clearly found the film emotionally moving. I was ultimately so grateful I was in attendance because one of the people that came to the screening was Edward, a man who is in the film. Edward doesn’t speak English and I don’t speak Polish, but it’s so easy to tell that he’s a warm hearted and compassionate man. We sat next to each other during the screening and I began to tear up during the scene in which he appears because (without giving anything away) he taught me a great deal about goodness in the world. As tears streamed down my face he reached over and held my hand. It’s a moment I’ll never forget.

Every author and filmmaker dreams that their work will reach a wide audience; they hope their story will emotionally impact their audience in a positive way.

JFI: If Moshe were here, seeing his great-granddaughter make this film and go on this journey in search of him, what do you think his reaction would be?

Rynecki: I know that my Dad, Alex, is proud of the project. I can only assume that Grandpa George would be grateful that the plea he left me in his memoir, “to know the truth and to not be afraid of it,” was heard and answered. I’m often asked why I am not a claimant fighting for the return of my great-grandfather’s paintings. My answer is that there are different forms of historical and social justice. My great-grandfather painted because he was passionate about the Polish-Jewish community and he wanted to record the people he knew and loved. I hope that my book and documentary film help to give voice to that history and my family’s story. As for what my great-grandfather might think, it is impossible to know for certain. I like to think he would be happy to see that audiences are still engaged with his work. I hope I’ve properly honored him, his work, and his memory.

Chasing Portraits screens at the 38th San Francisco Jewish Film Festival on Wednesday, July 25 at CineArts and Wednesday, August 1 at the Albany Twin. Roberta Grossman will be in attendance for all three screenings. Buy tickets now at www.sfjff.org.

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