The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of The Painter and the Thief.
Can you both discuss how this film came about?
Benjamin Ree: The film began with me researching art robberies. In Norway, we have a great tradition regarding art robberies. And this story was on the front page of all the newspapers in Norway. And I immediately contacted Barbora after reading about it, and then Barbora had already met Karl Bertil-Nordland in the trial. And I thought that was a great setup, that the artist had approached her thief in court and asked if she could paint him. And we were very fortunate because before I came along, even though I had begun filming them very early on — I think they had met four times before I got access to film them — there was already a lot of archival footage: A friend of Barbora’s had filmed her, and documented her art projects, and even filmed her exhibition. So that was how I learned about the story, and I have to also mention that this started out as a short documentary. I figured it would be about ten minutes long! I did not have any idea where the story would end up, I just kept on filming. And then we just filmed for three years and the story grew. So I was as surprised as the audience hopefully is as they’re watching the turning points and the things that happen in the film.
Barbora Kysilkova: For me, of course it was a surprise already— the fact that somebody stole my art was a surprise, but that’s a different story. And then when Benjamin got in touch with me on the phone and introduced himself, I was like, OK, let’s just see what happens. And I think it was about half an hour after that call, and Benjamin was in my atelier in Oslo. And I was so surprised that he was such a young man! I kind of felt that a documentary filmmaker had to be an old man with a gray beard… I don’t know why I thought that. And immediately I felt that this person… I felt that this person is somebody I can immediately trust. And so I felt that, OK, then I knew that I could seriously get in touch with Karl Bertil-Nordland and ask him, of course, what he thinks about it. Because he is ineed — as we see in the film — he’s the one who really walks there, exposed, so much. So it was more about that he had to approve, or agree, on going forward with the project. And then, it was many years later without the camera when Karl Bertil-Nordland came to my atelier and we just spoke about why each of us decided to say yes to Benjamin to do the movie. So I said that, honestly, I did it for Karl. Because I really knew and felt that his life and his story is just so strong. And also the story of him and me together, and I just wanted to share it with whoever would be willing to see what can happen when one removes all the prejudices, and leaves behind all the stigmatizing tendencies… what happens, how that pays off. And then Karl said, simply, “well I did it for your art. To kind of pay you back for what I took away from you.” Which was a really nice moment. So that’s how we both decided to go for it.
whether it’s a painting or a movie, you just pour the new hope into the veins of the people
Over the course of making this film, and following the release and reactions to the film, how has your work changed?
BK: I am very glad to say I am a full-time painter. Meaning that I have constructed my life in a way that I’m able to just paint— I don’t do any other work. Seven days a week from morning to night I’m in my atelier and I paint. At this time, during the filming, the only difference for me was that there was sometimes a camera around me. So yes, I do feel of course very honored that several of my paintings are shown in the procedure of creation, and that art is exposed to the people who watch the movie. I have to say that what really brought certain changes in my work — and I mean not technically but, like, what brought new inspiration to me — really was Karl Bertil-Nordland. So I really do see Karl as my muse. He really is my muse. Which doesn’t mean that it has to be with every painting there has to be Karl. His influence and inspiration comes from many levels, many depths. And many layers. It’s basically… to get to know somebody like Karl, with his life stories, with the way he thinks about things, how he acts and reacts… it’s really an endless source of inspiration for me. So in this way, maybe, there could be spotted certain influences in my work since the moment I started to paint Karl, and since the very first moment — which was of course very absurd if you look at it in a certain way: I was actually inviting the thief of my paintings into my atelier, into my studio! — which if you look at it from a certain objective perspective, this is already absurd on its face. But I trusted my gut feeling, and thank god I did, because I think it all turned out so well for both of us. And as the time passed by, my studio became a sort of safe shelter for Karl when he sometimes needed to just have a break from the city, from the people… so he’d come over with some coffee and just crash down in the sofa and relax there… and spread his influence and his inspiration on me. And I put it on canvas.
Can you describe the experience of releasing this film — that so profoundly emphasizes the importance of human connection — during a global pandemic that is forcing us all to keep apart?
BR: We were so fortunate that we got to have a premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, which was amazing. And Barbora was recognized all over Park City, and even Salt Lake City, and every time I presented her up on stage she got a standing ovation! So we had a fantastic time doing that. And I think that the film says a lot about human connection. What we humans do in order to be seen, and appreciated, and what it takes of us to really see others… to help others. That is the main theme of the film and what we are exploring. So I think that, for me, the meaning of life is being together; socializing. And it says a lot about an unlikely friendship and why that happened.
BK: I agree with what Benjamin says, I’m very glad to have the opportunity to show this film in person at Sundance. It’s something quite different to watch the film alone in your living room than it is to sit in a huge cinema with hundreds of people and everybody is watching, and you hear their emotional responses, whether they’re laughing or… they were not booing, thank god! Of course it was a very strong experience. And as the Coronavirus struck — which nobody of course could predict — I actually do see it as a sort of fortunate thing, that it happened, because I’m receiving every day a lot of messages from different people across the US and Canada. And many of those messages have one thing in common: They tell me that this story really brought so much hope back to those people’s lives in this crazy unsecure time. And also, as Benjamin said, you do reevaluate what counts. What counts is the way that we treat each other, how we behave toward one another, so to read such feedback from different people… for me it is totally breathtaking. And I’m just so glad… I say, “mission accomplished!” This is what art should do: whether it’s a painting or a movie, you just pour the new hope into the veins of the people. And it might hurt as it runs through— hope is not just beauty or something pleasant, you probably have to bite through something more difficult. But that fills you with hope and belief in mankind again.