Sundance/IFFR interview: Benjamin Ree, The Painter and The Thief

Sundance/IFFR interview: Benjamin Ree, The Painter and The Thief

Still courtesy of Sundance Institute


World-premiering at Sundance in World Cinema Documentary Competition before it goes onto IFFR (Bright Future), Benjamin Ree’s The Painter and the Thief is both audacious and thrilling in equal measure as it chronicles a unique, and highly unlikely, friendship.


Barbora Kysilkova is a very skilled artist whose photo-realist paintings portray with crystal clarity the emotional nuances of her subjects.


When two of her works are stolen from an Oslo art gallery, it doesn’t take long to track down the thieves, using CCTV footage. But when Barbora confronts one of the thieves, Karl-Bertil, in court, her tone is neither angry nor accusatory. Instead, she would like to paint his portrait, thereby turning the thief himself into art. 


Thus begins an intriguing, fascinatingly ambiguous and heart-warming story which, while content to leave many questions unanswered, packs a significant emotional punch.


Norwegian director Benjamin Ree had just finished a film about world chess champion Magnus Carlsen before he set out to make The Painter and the Thief. Carlsen aside, characters within the chess world can be somewhat dry and none too expressive, which is why a key remit of Ree’s new film was to find subjects who were able to express their emotions freely.


“I knew when I met them, before I started filming, that they were fascinating people, and I was really curious about where this story may go,” Ree points out. “Both of them wore their emotions on the outside. They were people who really dared to be themselves in front of the camera. They didn’t try to play themselves – so many people are too self-aware.”


The other driver for Ree was the subject of art theft, which always fascinated him, and which Norway is well used to given its number of stolen Munchs. 


“Robbers are kind of low culture in all their aspects, and paintings and art are high culture, so there is a contrast here that fascinated me,” the director points out. 


Whatever their individual cultural status, Barbora and Karl-Bertil have much in common. Both are emotionally fractured and bear the psychological scars of an abusive former relationship and a broken family home respectively. 


They seem to be inexorably drawn to each other. He initially derives comfort for her unconditional desire for him to be her muse. She is generous and listens to everything he has to say (even while he can offer no clue as to what happened to the stolen paintings). What’s more, they are both marvellously cinematic subjects; engaging, expressive, mysterious and articulate.


“In the film you can really see two people becoming friends,” comments Ree. “In the beginning you see that they are a bit awkward in how they talk to each other, a bit insecure, but [they have] a fascination for each other, so that was really crucial for me, to come in early so I could capture that.” 


“When I began filming, there were so many things I wanted to know. How would he react to Barbora’s painting of him? (It is an astonishing reaction). What will they talk about? How open will Karl-Bertil be about his past? How will they communicate? And of course, will he reveal where the missing paintings are?”


“There were so many trigger questions at the beginning, and also to have a character that had a tattoo that said ‘Snitchers are a Dying Breed’, you really couldn’t ask for more than that,” Ree adds, referring to the body art Karl-Bertil had inked onto his chest during a spell in prison.


But half way through the film, things take a significantly more serious turn after Karl-Bertil scores a bag of heroin and commandeers a car, ending up in hospital with 16 broken bones in his back and legs and the promise of a custodial sentence should he ever come out of his coma…


Ree stresses how he was determined to tell his story from alternating perspectives, and to avoid portraying clichéd power dynamics of an artist and his/her muse. Ree’s camera follows both independently, Barbora as her relationship with her boyfriend seems to disintegrate and as her debts pile up, Karl-Bertil as he begs for cash for his final hit of smack, and during a period of enforced recuperation. 


But their fascination for one another continues and throughout the latter part of the film we are invited to observe how their intriguing friendship flourishes. 


“For me, I have to be very curious about the people I want to film, and there has to be a mystery there that I would like to explore,” Ree explains of his subjects. “With [the film about] Magnus there was a similar kind of fascination for me, with lots of questions I wanted to find the answer to, like where does his intelligence come from, how was his upbringing, how did he develop such a great intuition?”


Likewise with The Painter and The Thief, he argues. “Being on a project like this for three years, having the energy and this high level of interest in my subjects, this is what keeps me going. I didn’t answer all my questions with the film, but maybe I [gained] a greater understanding of these two people.”