IDENTITY / Benjamin Ree's spin on the art heist surprises and invites.
Director: Benjamin Ree
Producer: Ingvil Giske
Distributor:
Country: Norway

One of the buzzed-about films at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival was The Painter and the Thief, directed by Norwegian filmmaker Benjamin Ree. This extraordinary doc tells the story of a friendship that develops between an artist and a man who stole her paintings — and the surprising depths of their bond.

Oslo residents might recall the robbery, which occurred on April 20, 2015. Czech artist Barbora Kysilkova was preparing for an upcoming show at Oslo’s Galleri Nobel. At lunchtime, two men broke into the gallery and meticulously removed two large canvasses, nail by nail, from their frames.

Ree’s film takes over from there, thanks to surveillance video that helped the police nab the thieves. Through the camera’s eye, we see Kysilkova watch the crime unfold. Yes, her paintings are being stolen («They even tied it with rope» she witnesses. «Tape and rope around the canvasses!»). We don’t know it yet, but this meta-observational mode sets the tone for the perspective-shifting ride on which we are about to embark.

Painter and the Thief-post1
The Painter and the Thief, Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Benjamin Ree.

A new spin

Films about the art world are nothing new. Forgery, theft, legal wrangling over ownership, profiles of unsung geniuses, they’ve all found their way to the screen. What’s new here is Ree’s spin on the art heist, both in premise and structure. First, you have a premise that might test your suspension of disbelief if this were a work of fiction. At the trial — we hear this in voice-over accompanied by artist sketches of the courtroom instead of pressing one of the thieves (Karl-Bertil Nordland) to reveal where her paintings are, Kysilkova asks him to sit for her so she can paint his portrait. He agrees.

Then you have the film’s structure, which shifts between Kysilkova and Nordland’s perspectives, sometimes visiting the same conversation. This inventive storytelling form lays bare assumptions we make, including about appearance—Nordland is a tattooed drug addict who sports irreverent t-shirts with slogans like «Crime Pays». And motivation—at one point, Kysilkova’s fiancé, Øystein Stene, challenges her to look deeper at her friendship with Norland. (Stene is a secondary yet pivotal character in the story). And then there are our assumptions about truth: How much are we projecting? Or obscuring? And what might we be missing?

Ree says he’s exploring questions that will confront an audience. «This is a film that will give audiences lots of questions they don’t necessarily get answers to, » he says. At times we go deep, thanks to the vérité style that captures intense, therapeutic conversations. There is also Nordland’s vulnerability, his willingness to share his trauma-filled past. Any concern about the performative nature of the film —after all posing and representation are endemic to the story—is mitigated in a moment of humanity that may leave you in tears as it did me. The gentleness with which Kysilkova treats Nordland is affecting. And her paintings of Nordland—let’s just say they make you wonder what life might have been like for him if anyone ever cared to really «see» him. One American viewer told me they thought an understanding of Norwegian culture was necessary in order to understand the forgiveness and generosity Kysilkova displayed toward Nordland. But then again, if this documentary teaches us anything, it’s that it’s best not to generalize.

Firsts

The Painter and The Thief premiered opening night at Sundance. It’s the only Norwegian film honored with this slot and Ree is the first Norwegian director to be invited into the World Documentary Competition (though there have been three Norwegian productions included in that section previously). For Ree, landing at Sundance was like the rest of the journey of this film—a surprise. «I did not know anything that would happen in this story, » says Ree, who thought his film would at first be a 10 min short doc, then a 30-minute doc, then a 60-minute doc. He ended up shooting for three years. (The final running time is 102 minutes.)

if this documentary teaches us anything, it’s that it’s best not to generalize.

Screenings at Sundance were sold out and audience engagement was high. Standing ovations were the norm and post-screening discussions were packed (people had burning questions about what happened to Nordland). For Ree, the experience of Sundance was much better than expected. «It’s the best audience I have shown films to, ever.»

And, in another surprise thread of this story, Kysilkova became a bit of a celebrity at Sundance. Up and down Main Street, festival attendees approached Kysilkova, asking to take selfies with her.

The Painter and the Thief took home a World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling. The doc is produced by Medieoperatørene in collaboration with VGTV. The European premiere will be at IFFR Rotterdam before heading to Thessaloniki IDF. Don’t miss this film.

Featured Image: Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Benjamin Ree