BFI London Film Festival review: The Painter and the Thief

Latest 12 Oct 2020

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Kami from Equal Access Network

Kami, member of Film London's Equal Access Network

Kami, a member of Film London's Equal Access Network, viewed The Painter and the Thief as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Here she shares her reflections on the film.

My name is Kami, I’m 25 years old and I joined Film London's Equal Access Network last year as part of the Getting into Film and TV (GiFT) programme Film London run to help people from minority backgrounds break into the industry. I love storytelling and projecting narratives. In terms of filmmaking, I want to be a screenwriter. I want to be able to tell stories as a living and to create space for others to do the same.

The Create Strand film I watched during the London Film Festival was called The Painter and the Thief, winner of this year’s Sundance Special Jury Award for Creative Storytelling. It’s a feature documentary about a man who steals a painting from an artist's gallery and the relationship the artist builds with the thief from when they first meet in court as he is tried for the theft. I have such a respect for people who make docs. It requires so much patience and care. A subject’s life is like a heap of tangled wires connected to a power outlet, and to show a narrative through that is to pick apart every wire and reorganise it so that everyone can access that power source.

Still from Benjamin Ree's film The Painter and the Thief, featuring a picture of a man with chest tattoos

The Painter and the Thief, dir. Benjamin Ree

The themes that director Benjamin Ree (Magnus, 2016) touched upon were the impact of true art on the artist and the onlooker, toxic relationships and mental health, the confrontation of one’s past and how feeling seen by loved ones is what pushes us forward. There’s a beautiful scene where the artist Barbora paints the thief Bertil. This is after they’ve met a few times and gotten to know a bit about their respective pasts. When Bertil sees the painting of himself, it’s like he’s seeing himself for the first time. He stares at this piece of art that dissects him and it’s almost as if he can’t decide if he loathes it or loves it.

Bertil and Barbora end up going through a lot together. The film switches narratives in a way that allows gaps in the story to be filled, which means that neither subject is in the shadow of the other. In fact, it almost gives a feeling of convergence. It is like stars colliding, but with less fragile fate and more firm autonomy. In the same way Barbora and Bertil choose to listen and care for each other, the way the narrative plays out feels like the camera is choosing to listen to and care for them. As each comes to terms with the person they are, the person they want to be and the chasm each has to jump to reach that point, they realise together “Just how f***ed up [we] are”, and they encourage one another to overcome anyways.

I think Benjamin is a beautiful storyteller. In his work, he shows that we all have more in common than we think. This doesn’t nullify or belittle the differences we have, though. Instead, he seems to suggest that we use the empathy rooted in our common experiences to fuel acts of kindness and understanding whenever and wherever we differ. Barbora is a gifted artist and Bertil seems to be a deeply feeling person. What better people could you ask to centre a narrative around?

The Painter and the Thief is part of The Create Strand of BFI London Film Festival, supported by the Mayor of London and Film London.