The Painter and the Thief not only tells a remarkable story but it does so in a remarkable way. The film chronicles the unlikely friendship between the Czech painter Barbora Kysilkova and heroin addict Karl-Bertil Nordland – a friendship which develops after Nordland is jailed for the brazen theft of two of Kysilkova’s paintings from a gallery. Norwegian Director Benjamin Ree follows his two protagonists for three and a half years, as Nordland becomes a new muse for Kysilkova, even as he indulges in increasingly self-destructive behaviour. But what really sets this film apart is its approach to storytelling – Ree has viewers inhabit the perspectives of both Nordland and Kysilkova, going back to replay scenes with different narrative overlays. It’s an exciting film which keeps you guessing, and in my books makes Ree (who is 31 and also made the excellent Magnus) a filmmaker to watch. I spoke to him via zoom while the film had its BFI London Film Festival run, where it won Best Documentary. The following interview contains spoilers and has been edited for length and clarity.
Carol Nahra: At what stage was their relationship when you started filming them?
Benjamin Ree: I started filming them the fourth time they met. I read about the story in the newspapers in Norway and it always takes a bit of time to get access – in this case getting access to a thief who didn’t know anything about me! I was really fortunate because a friend of mine had documented Barbora’s life a lot – taking photos of her paintings being made, filming her exhibition – we even had surveillance footage! Barbora had brought with her an audio recording recorder to the trial because she doesn’t understand the region so she recorded the whole trial and also during the break when she approached Karl-Bertil. So there was so much footage there from the very beginning. It was just pure luck to have such great footage before I came along.
CN: I have read that you’re inspired by observational documentary filmmakers like Steve James. But was there any point in time when you thought that you might become part of the story? Because clearly you must have interacted with them all the time during the shoot.
BR: During filming we did a lot of interviews and and we hear my questions and of course we could have chosen another approach to this where I am more visible. But I do believe that I am very there in the film as well. What I do with those interviews is I convert that to cinematic language. The film is very self reflective in a way but it but it is self reflective in a way that I haven’t seen before in a verité documentary film. I am very present in the whole film because we force the audience to think about the filmmaking process, having overlapping scenes. And some people become a bit uncomfortable with that, some love it, but I think it’s fun to try something new in a verité documentary.
CN: Absolutely and I am in the category of loving it and I really enjoyed the non-linear storytelling and the fact that it always kept you guessing. Did you have any idea when you were shooting it that you were going to be doing this in the edit?
BR: It was kind of two choices that made the structure happen. For me dramaturgy is not only an artistic choice in documentary, it is also an ethical choice. And that’s very important to keep in mind. So during filming we really wanted to portray Karl‑Bertil in a complex way to show how funny he is, how intelligent, how self-destructive and sad he is. And the only way to really get to know Karl-Bertil was to show the world from his point of view. And in the editing room we found the way to do it: that we wanted overlapping scenes. And the reason that we do that is because the themes of the film is what we humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. We would explore the film’s themes in a playful, fun and complex way to see the scenes over again so we had both of the subjects’ points of view of each other. And I think that was really relevant for this film. But it was in the editing room we found out how to do it.
CN: How did you get involved with Morgan Neville and what role did he play?
Ben: Morgan Neville saw the film at Sundance, so he came into it after the film. He loved the film and wanted to support it. I asked him if he wanted to become an ambassador. But in film words we don’t call it an ambassador, we call it executive producer!
CN: In the film Karl-Bertil has a bad accident. How soon did you talk to Karl-Bertil before he had it, and what was that like for you?
BR: It was not right before he had his accident. There was a period when he almost died several times and it was almost pure luck that he survived that accident. And Karl-Bertil and I had several conversations, and I said to him and he agreed both of us thought that he was going to die during filming. And I told him ‘if you die we’re not gonna make this film’ and Karl-Bertil responded by saying ‘if I die you have to promise to me to make this film’. So those are some of the conversations that we had. I was nervous all the time. I was waking up in the middle of the night worrying about him. There were of course long periods of time when I couldn’t reach him at all.
CN: When he sees the portrait and cries in that very moving scene, was he using at the time? He seemed quite out of it.
BR: For me that is a great scene filmed by Kristoffer Kumar. Karl-Bertil explains that this is maybe the first time he has been seen in his life, and that’s why he behaved that way. But the first half of the film yes he’s on drugs all the time.
CN: Is he doing okay now?
BR: He’s doing great today. He’s not single anymore. Bad guys like that don’t stay single for long! He has finished his second year at a school of sport science and he has got a new job. He’s not counting months anymore of being sober, he is counting years. I’m extremely proud of him and I think that the journey he goes through from the lowest point in the film, almost dying and being addicted to heroin, to where he is today is the most impressive thing I have experienced ever in my life.
The Painter and the Thief is released in UK cinemas and on demand 30 October.