Benjamin Ree: 'I like to do interviews - that's psychoanalysis. I like to do voice interviews where I place the main main people in a comfortable chair'
As the title suggests, it charts the unlikely relationship that sprang up between artist Barbora Kyslikova and Karl-Bertil Nordland, who only met because one day when he was high, he broke into her workshop and stole a canvas. On a whim, she approached him about being a subject for a painting and Ree's film documents the tale of the unexpected that subsequently unfolds, which is filled with raw emotion.
Ree says he was lucky with the project at the start. "When I came along, we were very fortunate because there was a lot of archival footage there already, a friend of Barbora had documented her artistic life, like taking photos of every painting that she made, filming a lot and filming exhibitions." He also had court recordings to draw on and got in on their relationship at the ground floor. "I began filming the fourth time they met each other, he says. "And at that point, I didn't know anything where the story might end up or where it would go."
Certainly, there is nothing predictable about what happens in the subsequent months as Ree watched his film grow into something he hadn't expected.
"That's always very risky, you know, because I don't know where the story will go and if I will get the access to tell the story," he says. "After filming for half a year, I thought this is going to be maybe a 30-minute short documentary, then I thought 60 minutes, like a commercial hour."
To say too much about what happens in the film itself would be to spoil the joy of its construction, which sometimes shifts back in time to challenge our perspective, but suffice to say, it soon became apparent to Ree that there was enough material for a feature.
Certainly dealing with an addict, as Karl-Bertil was at the start of filming, wasn't predictable but Ree says we wanted to portray him in "a complex way, to show that he's intelligent, funny, charismatic, self-destructive".
He adds: "The only way to do that, we felt, was to see the world from his perspective and that started the idea of seeing the world from both the painter's and the thief's points of view."
Director Benjamin Ree: 'I think it's fun to give myself a challenge to try something that I've never seen before' Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute
He admits Karl-Bertil's addiction was a concern.
"I would say, I worried about that every day for two years. I worried about Karl-Bertil every day. We actually had several conversations about it. We talked about death. And we actually came to the conclusion that both of us thought that he was maybe going to die. And this was after a lot of incidents. He almost died several times during the filming. One of them you can see in the film, and I told Karl-Bertil, 'If you die, die, I will not make the film'. His answer was, 'No, Benjamin! You have to promise me, if I die, you're going to make the film. It's still a very important subject to show to the audience, even if I die'. And that was a really tough conversation to have, but I'm glad that we had it. Because back then we both thought that he was gonna die and he also wanted to die.
"I have to add that now Karl-Bertil is doing great. He's not counting months any more of being sober, he's counting years. And he has finished his second year at a school of sports science. So he's, he's now beginning to work. So it's just extraordinary. I have never experienced in my life or seen any documentary where you meet a person that's so low, close to death - he had broken 16 bones in his body. He was screwed together, he couldn't move parts of his body and he was also addicted to heroin. And from that point in the film, to where he is at the end of the film and where he is today, I think that's the most impressive thing I've ever experienced in my life, just that journey. You can see it physically in the film, like how his whole body and face changes. It's almost not recognisable towards the end of the film, if you compare it to the beginning."
Explaining the way he blends interviews with footage, Ree talked about his approach to documentary.
"I like to do interviews - that's psychoanalysis. I like to do voice interviews where I place the main main people in a comfortable chair. Then not they're not looking at me, just looking outside or they close their eyes and then they talk a bit more in a stream-of-consciousness way. I think voiceovers are a bit more honest, in a way, they are talking a bit more like we're thinking.
"And during that interview Karl-Bertil came out with a quote that has become a bit famous now or has been recited many times. And he says that, 'She sees me very well, but she forgets that I see her too'. And when he told me that, I thought that was something I hadn't thought much about - of course, he sees her too. I thought that was a very important point he was making. And that, of course, freed me and made me curious about, what does he see in her?"
Benjamin Ree: 'I learned from journalism is how to activate a reader or an audience. And I think that one of the most crucial things you can do is to show two points of view, I think that has helped me a lot'
This idea of a dual perspective runs through the film as the point of view shifts between artist and thief, challenging the viewers' expectations.
Ree says: "I learned from journalism is how to activate a reader or an audience. And I think that one of the most crucial things you can do is to show two points of view, I think that has helped me a lot. And that is what we have in the film as well - Barbora has a boyfriend and he comes up with other points of view.
"I love reading a journalistic article where I get two opinions that differ from each other. And if they are also presented in a nuanced way, I really like that, it really activates me as a reader. And I think that is the main thing I've learned from journalism, to have two opposite views and take the best arguments from both sides and present them."
Does Ree ever consider the fact that though he was pointing the camera away from himself, that his subjects might also be studying him?
"There's a scene where Karl-Bertil gives a letter to Barbora that she reads out loud and, in that, he writes about me," he says, laughing. "So, I know they see me, but they have also said that they got used to the camera being there so after a while they didn't even care about me. I definitely think they see me as well. And they have, of course, many interesting views about being films and us being there with the camera. I don't know, maybe they should make a film about me."
In order for him to become unnoticeable, Ree spent a lot of time with his two subjects. "In documentary, we tend to use a lot of interviews, in order to present the inner state of a subject. Here, I do those interviews, but I don't use it in the film, I use those interviews, so I can transfer that to cinematic language.
"And that has been really an engaging process, I think, I truly believe that we should do more of that in documentaries. But that's kind of a different form, again, a different genre, like I love the subjectivity, used in fictional films. And we do the same here, we really tried to find a form to express a feeling in each and every scene. Like when Karl Bertil goes to prison - our job is to use those words to find the cinematic language of that. And sometimes it's a wide shot that can express what he is saying about loneliness. And when he comes out of prison - the feeling of freedom is when he holds out his hand and touches the air, driving. So we're always trying to find cinematic visuals."
The sort of film, then, that comes together as much in the editing suite as it does while it was being shot?
Benjamin Ree: 'I worried about Karl-Bertil every day...And we actually came to the conclusion that both of us thought that he was maybe going to die.
Ree agrees. "Yes, it was in the editing room. And I think that we found out what the story was really about. And for me, this film is about what humans do in order to be seen and appreciated. And what it takes us to see others and help others. And I'm asking this, like questions, because I think it's much more interesting to explore things that are questions, not statements. Because life is so complicated and so complex. And I think that when we knew those questions - the themes - then we could construct the whole narrative around that, that I truly believe that when you have a unique story, you also need a unique form and a unique structure.
"I think that when the story, and the form of the story fits like your hand in a glove, then you get a film that differs from a lot of other films. It almost feels like he couldn't remove the form, the structure, from the story itself, it really sticks together. And I think that all the scenes in the film reflect back on the themes. I think that's very relevant how they look at each other in the same scenes, and of course, it's me interpreting them and how they look at each other, but that is also my interpretation of them based upon three-and-a-half years of filmmaking and so many interviews."
The filmmaker has maintained a friendship, which developed during filming, with Barbora and Karl-Bertil since the cameras stop rolling and regularly meets with Karl-Bertil. "We gossip a lot," he says. He adds: "I think I think the film has changed both of their lives. But I don't know to what extent yet. But Karl-Bertil and Barbora don't have much money. So just for the film, to win some awards money, we share that in three parts, which is great - that pays for the rent for Barbora and that pays for Karl-Bertil's studies."
Looking forwards, Ree says, like almost everyone, the pandemic is affecting his work "a lot".
He says: "I'm working on two new feature documentaries. One of them, it's possible to do in Covid times. But it, of course, is very difficult. Like today I have a little bit of a cold. And that makes it impossible for me to go out and work today because of that. Also, for one of the projects I need to travel around in Europe and that is almost impossible. One interview I would like to do is in the UK. But I've postponed it to see if it gets any better."
He can't give much detail on his future projects, but says: "One is about an illusionist, that's correct. And one is another extraordinary real life story, which is the most moving and extraordinary story I've ever heard. That's gonna be like, like, archival based, making the archives as a present tense story. That's all I can say now."
He adds: "But with both of these projects I will try something new. That's my goal. I think I tried something new with The Painter And The Thief that I haven't seen before with a documentary. And the same goes for my two next projects, they'll try something new. Then I'll see if that fails or succeeds, but I think it's fun to give myself a challenge to try something that I've never seen before." Sounds as though they'll be worth looking out for.
The Painter And The Thief is released in cinemas across the UK and on VoD on Friday (October 30).