The Painter and The Thief is a truly outstanding documentary that rightfully won best documentary at this year’s London Film Festival. I had the privilege to speak with the film’s director, Benjamin Ree about how he was able to make a documentary in the moment among other aspects that went into the documentary. Read out conversation below and enjoy!
Dan: I saw your film and I want to say it was amazing. My first question is at what point where you involved with this story as it looks like you were there from the very beginning?
Benjamin: I found this story because it was on the front page papers in Norway. They were writing about the robbery and also the trial afterwards. So I thought that was a really cool premise for a film, so I contacted Barbora, the painter, and I got access to begin filming them the fourth time they met. Before that, a friend of Barbora had documented her life, taking photos of her paintings being made, filming the exhibition she had, we had surveillance footage, we also had the actual courtroom audio recordings. So we had a lot to work with and we were very fortunate that we had everything documented from the very beginning, so that was a very fortunate thing.
Dan: In the documentary there is footage that appears as if Barbora and her husband are finding out about their missing paintings there and there, where you with her at the time and then this story happened?
Benjamin: I began filming the fourth time they met, but at that time also they hadn’t seen the surveillance footage and it was an ongoing investigation so I could begin filming them watching the surveillance footage for the first time and stuff like that, it was kind of the beginning of the process. So, I got in early and I think that was also very crucial to this film, so we can see the actual friendship evolving. We did not know they were gunna be such good friends when we began filming, so that was a huge surprise. We intended, at first, to make a 10 minute short documentary, that was what we were planning on and then the project just grew. I work at an online news channel and that was what I was intending to make a short documentary for, so I knew nothing about where the story might end up, so it was just one of those projects that grew bigger and bigger over time.
Dan: How were you able to get Karl Bertil on robe sensitive on camera Considering he was a junkie and a criminal?
Benjamin: He said yes quite immediately because he wanted to give back to Barbora, that was his motivation. He felt guilty about what he had done and he felt he could pay back by participating in a film like this so Barbora would get media attention. So that was his initial motivation to be a part of this film and that was lucky for me that he felt guilt because if that hadn’t happened I don’t think he would have participated in the film.
Dan: There are some shots in the film that I have no idea how you were able to get such realness, like when Karl sees his first painting. How were you able to capture authentic sensitive moments?
Benjamin: I think that by filming a lot and by trying to get access to decisive crucial moments of their lives. When the situation they are in are more important than me being there with a camera they forget about the camera. They know that I’m there, it’s just the situation is more important. I think that is one of those moments were we had filmed a lot already so they had gotten used to the camera being there and of course we could not expect that this would happen at all, it was such a surprising moment that this tough guy was crying for 5 minutes, it’s such a moving moment of the film. I think that we filmed a lot, we filmed a hell of a lot of footage for 3 and a half years and I think you have to do that to capture scenes like that, it’s almost like being a nature photographer, you have to wait and wait and film a lot and you have to prepare for that 95% of your footage will be dull and nothing will happen.
Dan: You’ve kind of answered my next question, but how long does the documentary span?
Benjamin: Yeah, 3 and a half years and around 100 recording days.
Dan: When it came to editing it how much footage did you actually have to go through?
Benjamin: We had about 350 hours of footage to edit and we edited it for 8 months.
Dan: As this story started to unfold, did you kind of gauge where the story would go? What element of it was made in the editing room?
Benjamin: We made a lot of decisions in the editing room, but while filming we knew that we wanted to portray Karl Bertil in a complex way. I think that dramaturgy in a documentary film is not only an artistic choice it’s also an ethical choice, because the people, they are real people from the real world and they have to live with that film for the rest of their lives. So I think it’s very important to portray people honestly, but also in a complex way so we really get to know them like they were our friends. So the decision of showing the world from both point of views were of course taken earlier in the process, but overlapping scenes with both of their points of views that decision was made in the editing room, that’s where we found that out.
Dan: Where are Barbora and Karl now? What has happened to them since the documentary was made?
Benjamin: They are both doing great. Barbora lives together with Oystein in Sweden. She has sold 10 paintings and drawings to the US market now because of the film. Karl Bertil is doing great, I’m very proud of him. He’s not counting months anymore being sober, he’s counting years. He finished his second year at the school of sport sciences in Norway. He’s got a job and family and he’s ready for life, a drug free life and to see his journey in the film, like from the rock bottom when he almost died in a car accident and is addicted to heroin, to where he is today and what the film shows in his journey, that’s the most impressive thing I’ve ever experienced in my life, to see that journey. I think it’s so difficult to understand how much work, how much therapy, how much work with yourself it takes to get you back on your feet again both physically and mentally.
Dan: What’s next for you?
Benjamin: I’m working on two new feature documentaries. I can’t reveal that much about them, but both of them will try something new with the documentary form, the documentary genre, and both of them are kind of reality is stranger than fiction projects.
Dan: With this film we see how Barbora and Karl Bertil both impact upon each other’s lives. How much did you intervene at all, how much did you impact upon them?
Benjamin: That’s a very good and difficult question to answer, because having a camera there always effect and influence the lives of the people that I film. It’s difficult to say what would have happened if we weren’t there with the camera. But I know that it does effect what they are saying, what they are doing, although we try to be there as neutral as possible, but how it would have effected them if the camera wasn’t there, that would be difficult to say. I would be curious to hear that myself, but I don’t know really.
Dan: Not even when the camera was off? I can’t imagine you spent 3 and a half years never speaking to them.
Benjamin: Oh, I think we also developed a kind of friendship I would say. I say kind of friendship because it’s of course me with a camera there most of the time. And I’m very happy to say that I will call them my friends today, absolutely. So we talk a lot about the film, the film making, why we film scenes during filming. And when people ask me why we get that kind of access, one of the answers is that we have the huge lunch, so they came to me for lunch and we also filmed.
Dan: Awesome, that’s for speaking with me today; it’s a great film where can we see it?
Benjamin: Dogwoof is releasing the film in the UK. I think it’s going to be released now, October 2nd. I don’t know if it’s going to be in cinemas these days. I think it’s going to be a combination of a few theaters showing the film and also digital release of the film at the same time.
The Painter and The Thief is out October 30th in select cinemas.