'The Painter and The Thief': Benjamin Ree says it was difficult to film his friends when they were struggling

In an exclusive interview with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), Director Benjamin Ree said the dilemma while filming is, "do you keep on filming or do you stop and give the person a hug?"


                            'The Painter and The Thief': Benjamin Ree says it was difficult to film his friends when they were struggling
Benjamin Ree (IMDb) / Karl-Bertil (IMDb)

Benjamin Ree, the Norwegian documentary filmmaker who had several shorts and the feature-length documentary 'Magnus' (2016) under his belt, was curious about art thefts, and art thieves, in particular. So when Barbora Kysilkova's paintings were stolen from Gallery Nobel in 2015, he was there at the right moment and time to witness the birth of an extraordinary friendship. He started filming the interactions between the painter, Barbora, and Karl-Bertil, the thief who stole one of her paintings, from their fourth IRL interaction.

Speaking to MEA Worldwide (MEAWW), Benjamin Ree reveals that he thought that their interactions would yield a short 10-minute film at best. "When I began filming, I just didn't know what type of access I would get. I did not know what would happen. And then the project just grew over time. But it started as a 10 minute-short documentary for the web," Ree explains.

Karl-Bertil, who joins the interview, also didn't think it would amount to much. "We were filming for a year or something and I didn't know what place in my life I was. I didn't have any expectations about anything. I chose to meet Barbora because I felt I owed it to her to do whatever I could to make it up to her. But as we were filming, I thought of some new aspects -- that I have the possibility to show people that not all addicts are bad people. That you don't have to be an idiot to be an addict and struggle with drugs."  

Ree, as the director, realized he had something bigger in his hands during three crucial moments during filming. The first was when "Karl-Bertil saw himself painted for the first time" and had an extraordinary reaction to that. The second epiphany came when he saw Karl-Bertil and Barbora Kysilkova becoming really close friends. "It just seemed to be good to be true -- that the painter and the thief were becoming friends."

The third moment, which was the "most important" one in helping Ree decide that this was a feature-length documentary, requires a spoiler alert. It was when Barbora Kysilkova finds one of her paintings -- 'The Swan Song'. In the film, after Barbora rescues her painting from the dungeon-like storage area of a man who is known as a gangster, she lies down on her painting, embracing it, as if reunited with a lost love before triumphantly carrying it back home. It is one of the few moments when you feel that Barbora's faith and forgiveness have earned her some reprieve.

For Benjamin, it also brought the story of Karl-Bertil's story full circle within the film. "The film begins with him taking it out of the frame when he steals it and then at the end, he helps Barbora put it back in the frame again." The remounted painting then features in the new exhibition that Barbora puts together where there is another canvas with her and Karl-Bertil in an intertwined lover's pose -- an entire journey of forgiveness and friendship stretches between those two paintings. 

While the filming process had a serendipitous quality in regard to how the events played out, there were challenges. It was difficult for Benjamin, emotionally, to film the scenes where Barbora and Karl-Bertil are both struggling with their individual demons. "We were filming for over three years so we became friends. So it becomes tough to film when they are having a difficult time. That is the dilemma -- do you keep on filming or do you stop and give the person a hug? That for me was the tricky part." 

According to Ree, the film finally became about what humans do to be seen and appreciated. As Barbora paints Karl-Bertil's portraits and as he writes her these beautiful letters, Ree was there looking at them both, adding a "meta-layer" to the narrative.

"That's also why we chose to make the film as it is. We have two different perspectives and we've jumped back in time and have overlapping scenes and the reason we do that is, of course, to ask why did something happen? And how did that person get to experience it? It was showing what they were experiencing in film language.”

He also liked that the audience could think about the fact that there was another person, him, "telling the story". Elaborating, he explains, “the film is about exploring the themes of storytelling. Why do we tell stories? How do we tell stories? And who is in charge of telling the stories?"
 
'The Painter and The Thief' premieres on Hulu on May 22.

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