Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.
Early in her melancholy, unnervingly personal documentary feature, Chasing Portraits, filmmaker Elizbaeth Rynecki makes a pivotal decision with respect to the artwork of her late great-grandfather, Moshe, a victim of the Holocaust. Working mostly in oil on paper, Moshe Rynecki created striking paintings of intimate domestic and religious moments in Polish Jewish life, realizing everyday scenes in a markedly modern style that reflected the influences of French Impressionism and German Expressionism. Director Rynecki thought her ancestor’s artistic legacy to be somewhat obscure prior to her efforts to uncover more information about Moshe, whose works decorated the walls of her childhood home. When she eventually learns to her astonishment that not only do numerous other Moshe Rynecki paintings exist, but that they are held in high regard by museums and collectors, the filmmaker finds herself at a strategic and moral crossroads. Should she pursue her great-grandfather’s war-scattered works as a descendent seeking their repatriation? Or should she assume the stance of a historian who merely wishes to bring a neglected artist into the sunlight?
Rynecki elects to take the latter approach, and that choice informs the tone of Chasing Portraits. Unexpectedly, however, rather than turning her search into a detached academic endeavor, the director’s decision to abandon her family’s potential ownership claims has the effect of intensifying the personal dimension of her mission. By putting to rest suspicions that she seeks to wrest the paintings from the current owners, Rynecki eschews the legal thriller elements that are often pushed to forefront in stories of repatriated Jewish art (e.g., Woman in Gold ). Chasing Portraits thereby attains a more affecting and emotionally thorny character, as the desire to see Moshe’s lost paintings with her own eyes becomes an end in itself for the filmmaker. This yearning takes on an almost religious dimension as Rynecki winds her way through a labyrinth of fragmentary records and crisscrosses the world, often based on slender clues and vague assurances.
It eventually becomes apparent that Chasing Portraits is not a traditional biodoc-by-proxy of Rynecki’s ancestor, or even a delve into the annals of pre-War Jewish art history. Instead, the documentary is revealed as a fraught procedural about the filmmaker’s search for the physical art objects themselves; about said objects’ meaning (or lack thereof) to the myriad institutions and private individuals who possess them; and about Rynecki’s understanding of her family and her own place in history. The film is accordingly nothing so prosaic as "entertaining" or "interesting" in the manner of many documentaries about historical mysteries. This is a work of sorrowful passion, a pilgrimage to put white-gloved hand to painted paper and thereby achieve spiritual communion with the past.
It’s an undeniably potent approach – and perhaps the only one that makes sense for a tale so entangled with the filmmaker’s own story. Rynecki is commendably open in her voiceover narration about the conflicting emotions she contends with during her odyssey. She doesn’t present herself as a righteous champion so much as a humble seeker, her hunger entwined with questions and uncertainties. At times, the director’s cinematic instincts bend towards the self-indulgent – as when she visits the concentration camp where her great-grandfather was murdered, only to lean distractingly on clichéd visuals – but such minor missteps are counterbalanced by the startlingly honest pathos that prevails throughout the film. Rynecki’s own father is at the center of much of the film’s troubled ambiguity. Good-natured but emotionally walled-off, the man is visibly reluctant to discuss his wartime memories, and the filmmaker wrestles with how far to push her father in the interest of exhuming their family’s history. The director’s fiery investigative instincts are often set in opposition to her empathy, deference, and diplomacy. The film’s self-consciousness about that tension is one of its most refreshing features.
Indeed, what most distinguishes Chasing Portraits is this bruised unease that discolors Rynecki’s ostensibly straightforward story of righteous truth-seeking. It’s discernable in modern Warsaw’s glib fetishization of its decimated Polish Jewish culture, epitomized in the cutesy and faintly anti-Semitic tourist tchotchkes that startle the director when she encounters them on the street. It’s uncomfortably close to the surface in the inexplicable evasions and recalcitrance from one painting’s present-day owner, who seems determined to go to her grave with the artwork hidden away in her possession, unseen even by scholars. It’s these scribblings of imperfect justice and unsettled history that give Chasing Portraits its jolt of credibility, amplifying the power of the film’s achingly personal character.
Chasing Portraits screens Friday, Nov. 9 at 7:15 p.m. at the Plaza Frontenac Cinema. Buy tickets now.