Benjamin Ree is the first Norwegian director ever to get a cinema documentary invited to the prestigious Sundance Film Festival in the United States. Here he tells of the laborious work making his documentary The Painter and the Thief.

BENJAMIN REE breddebilde

In Benjamin Rees ' film, a painter meets the thief who stole her art – and she ends up painting him. It all begins with two of artist Barbora Kysilkova’s valuable paintings being stolen from an Oslo gallery. The police soon catch the thieves, but the art is not found. When Barbora attends the trial in hope of finding clues to their whereabouts, she instead ends up asking the thief if she can paint him – and he welcomes it.

How did you discover the story of artist Barbora Kysilkova and thief Karl-Bertil Nordland?

“After I finished the documentary Magnus, I started looking for new film projects,” answers Benjamin Ree, 30. “I was curious about art thefts — and art thieves — and then suddenly this case appeared on the theft from Gallery Nobel in 2015. I then started filming the interactions between Barbora and Karl-Bertil from the fourth time they met. The documentary started as a short, but then so much unexpected happened with Barbora and Karl-Bertil that it grew into a feature length film.”

The thief sobs

Ree’s favorite scene in the documentary is when the hardened art thief with all his tattoos and his past as a drug addict sees Barbora’s painting for the first time. Karl-Bertil starts sobbing. For the first time in his life, somebody has really seen him, he says.”

Director and screenwriter Benjamin Ree studied journalism at the University College in Oslo and moved on to work as a journalist for Reuters, BBC and VGTV. A few years later he began making short documentaries; Drømmen om kongeørnen (2012), When Ailin kissed Lars (2014). His first feature length documentary, the award-winning Magnus – about Norwegian chess prodigy Magnus Carlsen, premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016 and was sold to more than 60 countries.

Make the participants feel safe

"Directing a documentary is about facilitate everything in order to make the participants feel safe and thus capture their essence,” says director Ree. 

The director’s own favorite documentaries take place in the present and are filmed over a period of time, just like his The Painter and the Thief. Ree names Steve James’ The Hoop Dreams and Stevie, as well as Jesse Moss’ The Overnighters as his favourites. They were both shown at Sundance.

How was your access to the protagonists?

“I think that the reason the project became so special is my access to them and that I managed to be present with the camera at the right times. Sometimes one can have very interesting protagonists, who in themselves are a good basis for a documentary, but if nothing happens during the shoot, it will not be a good film. That’s why I work on several documentary projects at the same time to see which ones will lead somewhere. And this one really delivered.”

Why do you think your film was accepted at Sundance, the first ever Norwegian-directed film to receive this honour?

“I don’t know; it’s a total fantasy. It’s very tough to get included in this festival. What I have been told is that the programmers liked the story being so crazy and the film cinematically so different, with a story being told from different perspectives, and with different moods and expressions for each place portrayed. I wanted to convey the various moods cinematically.”