Benjamin Ree’s latest documentary, The Painter and the Thief, traces the story of an unlikely friendship between an artist and the man who stole two of her paintings from a gallery in Oslo.
Finding herself unable to feel anger towards Karl-Bertil Nordland following his arrest, the artist, Barbora Kysilkova, asked if she could paint him. The fourth time they met, Ree brought in cameras and began to capture a surprising relationship.
“After that scene with Bertil watching himself painted for the first time and his [emotional] reaction to that, I really knew that this is going to be a great story,” the director tells Stephen Saito.
Ree contacted Kysilkova after reading about the robbery in the news; “I was curious about art thefts— and art thieves—and then suddenly this case appeared,” he explains in an interview with Norsk filminstitutt. “I think that the reason the project became so special is my access to them and that I managed to be present with the camera at the right times.”
“When I began filming,” Ree explains, “I did not know that they were going to become friends. I actually didn’t know anything about where the story would go. That’s always my favorite way of starting a project. Knowing nothing, just following my curiosity—and the film ended up not being about art theft, but about an intricate and unusual friendship.
“So I continued filmed for more than three years, and it was such a pleasure,” he continues. “The characters are passionate, direct, sensitive and multi-layered. From the moment I began filming I wanted to explore the complex friendship between the painter and the thief.
“Two questions were the driving motor: What do we humans do to be seen and appreciated, and why do we help others? For me, filmmaking is about asking intellectually stimulating and emotionally engaging questions through observing human behavior. I hope I have managed to raise some intriguing questions with this film, questions you will think about long after the end credits.”
This intimacy stems from Ree’s fly-on-the-wall approach, serving as his own one-man camera crew for much of the movie. “The biggest challenge was to watch people suffering emotionally and to film that,” he tells Lauren Wissot. “I think that’s a huge dilemma for a documentary filmmaker. Should you give the person a hug, or should you continue filming? Most of the time I continued filming, before I gave a hug towards the end.”
“Ree follows quietly, invisible enough to his subjects that they frequently let their guards down,” writes Alissa Wilkinson. “We hear what Kysilkova and Nordland are thinking not just about themselves but about one another; the story wraps back on itself several times to give us a different perspective and to let us see what it is to be Barbora the painter or Bertil the thief.
“And that is what makes The Painter and the Thief so enormously intimate and gripping,” she continues. “Through two different sets of eyes, we are asked to learn how to see. A painter like Kysilkova trains themselves to notice and see the world in a different way from most people. Several times during the film, Nordland says that he marvels at how she sees him. But he sees her too—more keenly than she might imagine—and starts to understand what motivates her, what hurts her, and why she paints the world.” To read the full article, click here.
“Ree’s documentary falls in a tradition of intensely emotional art that worries at the boundaries between artist and subject, fiction and reality,” writes Josephine Livingston. Kysilkova and Nordland are engaged in a symbiotic relationship facilitated by art. ‘She sees me very well,’ Nordland says, ‘but she forgets I can see her, too.’ Because of the effort and support Kysilkova pours into Nordland’s fragile well-being, he does not remain a passive subject but blossoms into a narrator in his own right. When it is Kysilkova’s turn to be vulnerable, having fallen on hard times, she shies away from intimacy with Nordland. It’s not so easy to be the subject of somebody’s gaze, it turns out.”
“I have to admit it really was not difficult, or for Karl-Bertil, to actually just do as we would do even if there was no camera around,” Kysilkova tells Matthew Carey. “Both [the crew] and Benjamin, as they kind of call it, [were like] flies on the wall. It was so easy to forget about their presence and to just keep on living and somehow it happened that it was caught on camera. That’s my perspective. I very often forgot there was anyone else around.”
The director drew inspiration from a form of therapy called “perceptual perception,” he notes in an interview with Wissot: “You are challenged to see the world from your own and another person’s perspective, and you change this many times during the exercise… so I tried to ‘interview’ them in this way and hope they’d feel free to speak in an open and introspective way.”
“I have also tried to push the cinéma vérité form onto a new path, with several perspectives jumping back and forth in time, revealing new layers of the friendship throughout the whole film,” Ree says. “I have worked hard to find a cinematic form to suit the content for each scene, that reflects the inner state of the characters.”
“We discovered that we should blend different styles of storytelling and editing in this film,” writes Robert Stengaard, the film’s editor. “These shifts in style and tone would also be motivated by the shifting of perspective. After a while, we got it right. To experience the different styles we wanted to try, we watched and analyzed films that used the type of storytelling we were looking for.”
“We also wanted to go ‘beyond sentimentality,’ and avoid dwelling too much on emotion,” he adds. “That is, letting the characters carry their feelings fully, but have the story drive the audience in a direction that went beyond just empathizing through the ups and downs; the goal was to bring them to a deeper understanding of our two main characters and the meaning of their relationship.”
For cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar: “Nothing beats reality. From the first day of shooting the subjects, we realized that we’d never know how the days would end up and where they would lead us. To give the viewer the same feeling of intimacy as we felt with the subjects, we used light, portable equipment to be as flexible as possible.”
Kumar used low light as much as possible but used LED lamps for rooms that were too dark to film. “A lot of the film was shot handheld and on the go, and because of that, our choice fell on the Sony FS5 which is a strong camera easily adaptable for any situation. We took inspiration from our subject’s state of mind when determining how to shoot the film visually,” he explains.
“An example of this is that certain scenes with art thief Karl Bertil are shot in the streets of Oslo with a run and gun 24-105 Canon L lens, simply to keep up with him. For other scenes, for example when he’s in prison, with a quiet and contemplative state of mind were shot on a tripod using Carl Zeiss’ lenses with high bokeh effect. For us this adaptable setup has been crucial for having the flexibility to film in diverse situations-in the open public, in institutions and other locations.”
Asked by Saito what it was like to see himself in the film, Nordland laughs: “Horrible. No, it was not fun. I’ve seen the film once, but I won’t see it again. [But] the film maybe helped me to own my own story a bit more and it helped me to put my past behind me, I think.”