April 5, 2019

6 Things I Learned Making My First Feature Documentary

Before making my first documentary feature, “Chasing Portraits,” I had no formal training or experience in filmmaking. The story of the film - and my personal connection to it - propelled the project along.

My quest to find the art that my Polish-Jewish great-grandfather, Moshe Rynecki, lost during World War II, began with a website to exhibit his work. Interest in the web site drew me further into the story of his lost artwork and I began to chronicle the discovery process. It was clear I had a compelling enough story for a feature documentary. But along the way, I published a nonfiction book on the topic, which helped me to complete financing for the feature.

More than a decade after I began working on it, Chasing Portraits will hit soon hit theaters in New York and Los Angeles. 

Here’s what I learned along the way:

Start with a Compelling Story

For a film to be successful, it needs to have a compelling story. But mostly, at the beginning, the story must be compelling at least to you. Remember that you’re going to devote a tremendous amount of time on this project and you need to be ready to advocate for the film for the long haul. 

But even if you find the story compelling, that doesn’t mean others will. Be prepared to answer questions such as “Why is your film worth funding?”, “Why will anyone want to watch it?”, “Who is your intended audience?”, and “What do you hope audiences will take away from it?”

Develop Your Elevator Pitch

An elevator pitch is an opportunity to share your story and to make connections that might help you in myriad and unpredictable ways down the road. An elevator pitch is about knowing how to share the heart of your story. Most people really don’t want you to drone on about the backstory, character details, or funding woes; they want a quick summary, a logline which gives them the heart of the plot along with a bit of mystery. If people want to know more, they’ll ask, and that’s a good sign that your pitch is solid. If they nod and change the topic, then they either aren’t your audience, or you need to tighten your pitch.

My elevator pitch was (and still is) this: “My great-grandfather was an artist in Poland who painted scenes of the Jewish community in the interwar years. When the war started, he hid his paintings around Warsaw. He perished in the Holocaust, and after the war my family recovered only a small portion of the paintings. I’m searching for his lost paintings.”

There will always be someone who gets into more festivals than you, has more screenings than you, gets more publicity, and better reviews than you. It’s easy to focus on all that you haven’t accomplished or achieved.

Crowdsource: Get All the Support You Can Get

When filmmakers think of crowdsourcing, they often think of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but there are many other ways you can lean on people’s generosity to move your project forward. Bootstrap your project by getting help from people who know more than you do. Ask your local librarian to find books (or films) on elements of a topic you hope to tackle in your own project. Read newspaper stories and magazine articles that touch upon themes you’re hoping to address. Follow people on social media who are experts in the field you’re researching. Be social (that means re-posting or re-tweeting their content) and engage them in areas of mutual interest.

Chasing Portraits is about my search for my great-grandfather’s lost art, but it also touches on issues of Holocaust-era art looting, museum collections, provenance research, art history, Holocaust education, and Jewish culture. I’m amazed by what I learned on Twitter from museum staff, lawyers specializing in art related matters, and Jewish museums.

If you’re stumped about something, and can’t find a way out, ask for advice. I once missed filming a critical moment of discovery and when I bemoaned the loss to a family member, she suggested I re-tell it in a film diary entry. It wasn’t the perfect solution, but it was an approach I liked and used for the duration of the project. 

Build a Strong Team

A consultant once told me that hiring people for your film is like dating—you meet, you chat, you try to sort out if you share the same vision, and if it seems promising, you take a leap of faith that you can work together. If you already know a lot about making a film, then you’re ahead of the game. But even if you already know a lot, remember there’s still a lot you can learn.

When I started Chasing Portraits, I thought I would bring my U.S. film crew with me to shoot in Poland. My Consulting Producer ultimately dissuaded me of this idea because it was far too expensive. And then it turned out that hiring locally was one of the smartest decisions I ever made. My cameraman (who ultimately, was credited in the film with Director of Photography) spoke Polish, was well connected with the Polish-Jewish community. In fact, he was a documentary filmmaker in his own right. He coached me as we figured out together how to best tell my story. I would tell him I needed to film at a certain building and why and then he would suggest multiple shots – walk close to the building and look up, cross the street and walk past the camera, go into the building, walk out of the building. He understood why I needed the building in the shot and helped to provide various ways to tell that moment so that down the road my editors had various B-roll footage options. 

If something isn’t working, don’t be afraid of change. As with dating, sometimes things just aren’t meant to be, and it’s better to move on rather than invest more time and money in a bad situation.

Be Persistent and Persevere

I love the saying, “You don’t ask, you don’t get.” Don’t be afraid to dream big and to ask others to help you achieve your goals. In 1999, in a much earlier version of my project, I wrote a letter to Elie Wiesel, the Nobel Laureate Holocaust survivor and author to ask for advice about my website. He replied, “I do not use the Internet at all and therefore, I am not familiar with ‘websites.’” Alas, he couldn’t help me, but at least he wrote back!

Sometimes you strike out, and sometimes your efforts yield positive results. In late 2018 the Boston Jewish Film Festival announced that they would include my documentary film in their line-up. I wrote to a Boston radio reporter who was producing a podcast about the 1990 Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum heist. My pitch was, “You seem to be interested in stories about stolen art, my story is coming to your neck of the woods, maybe you’d like to do a story about my documentary.” She was too busy to cover it, but passed me on to someone else who included my film in a story titled, “6 First-Person Docs To See At The 30th Boston Jewish Film Festival.” I am certain the press helped sell out the screening.

Remember You Can’t Have It All

There will always be someone who gets into more festivals than you, has more screenings than you, gets more publicity, and better reviews than you. It’s easy to focus on all that you haven’t accomplished or achieved. With thousands of films submitted to festivals that only have a few programming slots, a lot of it is about luck. I do, however, try to remind myself that while luck plays a role in whether or not you get into a festival, sometimes you need to make your own luck.

After one of my festival screenings, I met a man who, for many years, was instrumental in screening independent films. He liked Chasing Portraits and asked me if I had a distributor. I told him the names of the distributors who had already turned the film down. He had some other distributor ideas and offered to write email introductions. When a month later he still hadn’t written those emails, I invited him and his wife to dinner. That night, he wrote those emails and one of those distributors, First Run Features, leaped at the opportunity to represent my documentary. Again, sometimes you need to make your own “luck.”     

First-time filmmaker Elizabeth Rynecki is the great-granddaughter of Polish-Jewish artist Moshe Rynecki (1881-1943). Her book, Chasing Portraits: A Great-Granddaughter’s Quest for her Lost Art Legacy, was published by Penguin Random House in 2016. Her film, also titled Chasing Portraits, opens at Cinema Village in New York on April 26 and in Los Angeles at the Laemmle Music Hall on May 17.

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