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Benjamin Ree • Director of The Painter and the Thief

“So many surprises I would never have dreamed of punctuated the creative process”


- Norwegian director Benjamin Ree talks to us about his documentary playing at the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund, The Painter and the Thief, which is based on an unusual news item

Benjamin Ree • Director of The Painter and the Thief

The Painter and the Thief [+see also:
film review
interview: Benjamin Ree
film profile
, the second feature-length documentary by Norwegian director Benjamin Ree, already awarded at the Sundance Film Festival last January, is currently playing at the Norwegian International Film Festival in Haugesund. This film, produced by Medieoperatørene and distributed in Norway by Euforia, tells of the improbable meeting of a Czechpainter, Barbora Kysilkova, and the thief of one of her paintings, Karl-Bertil Nordland.

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Cineuropa: You have solid training as a journalist.
Benjamin Ree: Yes, but I did my true apprenticeship thanks to Magnus, my first feature-length documentary, about chess champion Magnus Carlsen, the score of which was composed by Uno Helmersson. It’s to this composer that we owe the organ musical theme that we hear at the beginning and at the end of The Painter and the Thief.

Are you a painter yourself?
No, but I come from a family of artists and I am interested in art. The stealing of paintings fascinates me in particular, and as soon as I learned about what had happened to Barbora in the Norwegian press, I contacted her.

Your film is imbued with sincerity and humanity.
Undoubtedly because we worked with mutual trust and respect, Barbora, Karl-Bertil and I. At first I was shooting without really knowing where this adventure would take us, but then, little by little, its potential revealed itself to me in all its richness.

They were both part of the creation of the film, I believe.
I gave them more or less detailed explanations about the necessity of certain scenes. Talking with them about dramaturgy allowed them, I think, to forget the camera more easily and to express themselves more freely. Often what looks like banalities, free associations of ideas, is more revealing than we think.

Quick flashbacks, little time jumps, ellipses, omissions…
They are explained by changes of narrator and, therefore, of perspective. A new camera angle, a different lighting, and a sense of tension is created. New elements add themselves to the narrative and the story is richer for it. We then discover the people – we can almost call them characters – in their complexity, with emotions and facets that can be surprising.

It’s a little as though we were in front of a diptych, facing two portraits that respond to each other in an echo.
Barbora and Karl-Bertil reveal themselves as the days go by. They are on equal footing. I wanted this balance between the two. He suffers from heroin addiction. Her drug is art. Her painting is everything to her. When looking for her paintings, Barbora doesn’t hesitate to take risks in her investigation, just as Karl-Bertil has the courage to expose himself, to reveal this vulnerability he is aware of.

What role do the so-called secondary characters play?
They are important, of course. One example: Øystein, Barbora’s companion, a privileged witness, asks the questions that many spectators ask themselves, and therefore helps make  the development of the action more dynamic.

In the end, what is The Painter and the Thief? A love story?
Hmm… in the broad sense of the term. It is above all a film about an unusual friendship, about the healing power of beauty and empathy, about the importance of being appreciated, accepted, simply loved, about trauma and how to live with it. But it is also a film about the way we talk about our lives, the way we tell ourselves. As for me, I am above all an observator. I let the camera capture the gestures and the facial expressions, seize the decisive moments. I shot 70% of the original material.

That's true, insofar as I am an invisible narrator, but I am not a catalyst, I don’t intervene directly. With cinematographer Kristoffer Kumar by my side, and then editor Robert Stengård, I had to make dramaturgical and aesthetic choices, but also ethical ones: should I keep rolling on a delicate scene, at the risk of betraying the trust we have between us? Three years of shooting, eight weeks of editing… and a few dilemmas.

Was motivation always there?
Yes. So many surprises I would never have dreamed of punctuated the creative process! Reality is sometimes stranger than fiction, you know. It’s curiosity that pushed me to carry out this adventure, the desire to stimulate the intellect while generating feelings, and also the genuine interest I have in Barbora and Karl-Bertil. At first I was fascinated by their differences, then I understood just how similar they were. Two truly fascinating people.

You’re so lucky!
I learned a lot from them and I am thankful: Barbora’s simplicity, her generosity, her aptitude for compassion… Karl-Bertil who, with courage and a good dose of black humour, has rebuilt himself step by step. We tend to stigmatise, to keep those we dislike at first glance in the shadows, but, as you can see in my film, to change one’s life is not impossible. Hope is always allowed.

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(Translated from French by Manuela Lazic)

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