Written and directed by Elizabeth Rynecki, Chasing portraits chronicles her journey to find her great-grandfather’s paintings, which were scattered around the world after the Holocaust. (FEA 4/5).
In a home-video style documentary, Elizabeth Rynecki films her and her family’s journey around the world in order to trace and document her great-grandfather Moshe’s art. A victim of the Holocaust, he entrusted his friends to guard his paintings in order to attempt to ensure their survival. Almost 80 years later, he is now recognized as one of the major Holocaust artists, and his paintings are collected and displayed across the globe, owned by Museums and private collectors alike. Recognizing the importance of the content and context of his art, Elizabeth Rynecki goes on a multi-year journey, first as a claimer then as a historian, in order to document his work and find more information on it. The process does not come easy, as she is faced with many hurdles and rejections, despite her blood relation with the artist.
The film immerses the viewer into a rather intimate environment. There is no “crew,” only Elizabeth and her family, who take turns filming and interviewing one another, in order to discuss their thoughts and feelings throughout the journey. This allows for the film to delve into testimonies from Holocaust survivors—Elizabeth’s dad being one of them. Her connection with the horrifying event allows the tragedy to be experienced through the suffering of her family. Moshe, her great-grandfather, was one of the millions of Jews executed after living in the Warsaw Ghettos of Poland. Her grandfather was forced to forge his family’s documents in order to stay out of the ghetto and keep his family safe. Their story, like that of many other Polish Jews, is marked by great loss and tragedy, of people but also of potential. Who knows, had he stayed alive, perhaps Moshe would have been considered one of the greatest artists of our time?
The film’s intimate environment, while endearing at times, also comes at a price. Elizabeth’s constant narration often makes it hard to truly immerse oneself in the work. At times it can feel too on-the-nose, and more like she is reading rather than organically narrating. A great way to avoid that would have been to record her narration as the events occurred, instead of what she seemed to have done, which was to add it all at the end of the process.
Overall, however, I definitely think that Rynecki does what she intended to do, which is to add to the testimony of the Holocaust before time runs out and survivors disappear. In this way, I believe she makes her grandparents proud, as she does not leave their story behind, and is instead able to contribute to the vast amounts of memoirs and artworks that portray the horrors of the Shoah. Indeed, as she states, one day there will be no more survivors, but we must still remember the Holocaust so as to avoid repeating it. I believe her film contributes to keeping the memory of the Holocaust alive.
Coach Katusha’s Comments:
Chasing Portraits is a personal documentation of Rynecki’s hunt for the lost pieces of family history. Although I went into the film knowing the gravity of the topic, the lighthearted tone at the very start misled me to think the rest of the film would follow suit. Instead, the connection we feel towards Elizabeth and her father make the rejections and losses far more touching. My understanding of the weight of pain, nostalgia, and responsibility that comes with her endeavor grows throughout the piece.
At a certain point of the movie, it ceases to be only a family documentation, but takes on a much larger role. It provides an insight into the process of rediscovering the buried parts of history that make up the identity of millions upon millions of families today. Chasing Portraits makes us questions how to retain our identity when integral pieces of it are gradually becoming erased and forgotten? (KIZJ: ⅘)
Top Photo: Elizabeth Rynecki examining her grandfather’s paintings.
Middle Photo: Poster for Chasing Portraits.
Bottom Photo:The Divorce (The Get), no date. Moshe.
Photo Credits: Chasing Portraits Press Kit (Top & Middle); http://rynecki.org/synagogue-life-gallery/ (Bottom).
Yes. Many of the interviewees Rynecki talked to were women.