Czech protagonist of hit documentary: “People told me, I have to forgive my offender”

'The Painter and the Thief'

The Painter and the Thief, a documentary about how an artist befriends the troubled man who stole her paintings, won an award at the Sundance Festival and has earned glowing reviews. Though the film is set in Norway, the female protagonist, Barbora Kysilková, is a Czech artist who produces large-scale, hyperrealistic works. I spoke to Kysilková just ahead of the Czech premiere of the powerful documentary last week.

The Painter and the Thief takes place in Norway. What led you to Norway, to Oslo?

“As a total cliché of a poor artist, a poor painter, living in Berlin, where else should you go but to the most expensive city in the world, more or less?!

“Well, I fell in love with a Norwegian man.

“And after seven years in Berlin I understood that it was really quite urgent to leave.

“So it came together like a puzzle. Even though I had only 15 euros in my bank account, I just said yes.

“Or, let’s say, I said this to my now boyfriend – that I totally appreciate his invitation to join him in Oslo, but whether he knows my situation?

“And he said, Yes, I’m aware – let’s do it anyway.”

The film centres on your friendship with a guy who stole two of your paintings in 2015. You approach him in court and say you want to speak to him. But it’s not entirely clear to me as the viewer why exactly you felt the need to speak to him.

“My boyfriend helped me to realise what a story I could have in front of me.”

“I already mentioned my boyfriend.

“He is a writer. He writes novels and therefore, I have to say, he’s got a really excellent sense for a story.

“He helped me to realise what a story I could have in front of me.

“First of all, if you imagine me as a totally unknown painter somewhere in Norway, in Oslo, sort of the periphery of Europe.

“And there are two people who decide that they will break the law in order to get my two large-scale paintings – it just doesn’t make sense, right?

“So then when I realised there is a chance that I can meet both of these two thieves I realised that as a painter there is a huge challenge to do something with it.

“Also not to deny the fact that as a human being of course the curiosity was way too big.

“But what happened afterwards blew all of my expectations – it was just beyond any expectations.”

But were you seeking to create a “story”, so to speak, with this guy Karl-Bertil?

“Well, I am not a storyteller.

“That was more or less just the beginning kick from my boyfriend.

Barbora Kysilková | Photo: Libor Galia

“But from me I was like, I’m now here like a living painter whose paintings were stolen and I have a chance to meet my thieves.

“So my first idea was to ask them to pose for me when I wanted to recreate the crime scene.

“But then in the court room it just turned totally different.

“First of all, it was only one that was there, Karl-Bertil; the other thief did not arrive to the court.

“And when I saw Karl-Bertil there for the first time it was sort of… I dare to say that it was kind of love at first sight.

“Even though I love my boyfriend, but love has many layers and I just got hooked on Bertil.

“And my curiosity grew in quite a different direction than just to make a portrait of some criminal.”

What was it about him? I kind of know what it is, because I’ve seen the film – he’s a very charismatic guy. But still, what was it about him that drew you so much?

“I’m now here like a living painter whose paintings were stolen and I have a chance to meet my thieves.”

“I wish I could really easily answer this verbally.

“But I’m mostly driven by a certain intuition, rather than intellect.

“So I dare to say it was my intuition that decided to take me this way – that I should just go for it, whatever it will bring.

“I don’t know where it’s heading, I don’t know what’s going to happen, whether good or bad, but there was just no other way than to do it.”

In the film you seem to live a quite quiet life and you work in your studio a lot. He of course has a rather different background: He was a drug addict, he had been a gang member and he goes to prison during the film. Was that part of his appeal – that he’s from the other side of the tracks?

“As you describe it, we might seem to be from opposite sides of the planet.

“But we still live on the same planet and I think we would both agree that there are many things that connect us.

“But I can’t deny that there is of course a certain attraction to the darker side of the moon.

“So that was also one of the driving forces for me.”

Just to get back to the theft of your painting, the theft seemed kind of random. This guy Karl-Bertil couldn’t even remember it – he was high on drugs. So it wasn’t a like a typical art heist, where somebody targets a picture and steals it.

“Well, that’s the story presented by Karl-Bertil. And I have decided to believe it.

“I asked him a few times about the paintings [which were unaccounted for after the court case] and he said he can’t remember.

“So OK, that’s just easier to accept, that he’s telling the truth.”

But was that hard for you as the victim? Again, the paintings weren’t stolen to be sold or for a client, or something like that.

“On the day of the robbery when the gallerist called me and told me the news, that two paintings were stolen and both of them were mine…

“Your brain just tries to make sense of that, because none of that makes sense.

“I’m not Edvard Munch, the famous Norwegian painter – it would make sense to steal his work in order to make some money, to go to the black market.

“So none of that made sense to me, why anybody would steal my paintings.

“I still don’t have a very clear answer as to why they went for it.

“I was not very often confronting Bertil with this, because I didn’t want to create in him some fake impression that the only reason I tried to befriend him is to find out what happened to the paintings.

“Because this really was not the case.

“But there were a few moments when the talk came to this theme and then, bit by bit, he said a few things and I put together pieces of the puzzle.

“I understood that Bertil at that time used to live quite near the gallery, so he passed by the showcase quite often and he saw these two paintings.

“So he had knowledge about these two paintings and then probably, as I understood it, that very morning, after a whole night on any possible drug he just decided to go for it.”

We also see in the film you and your boyfriend discussing your relationship with Karl-Bertil and your boyfriend is saying that it’s an emotional risk getting involved with somebody who is so unpredictable. I was wondering why you agreed to be filmed in those scenes, where you’re having this emotionally intimate interaction?

“None of that made sense to me, why anybody would steal my paintings.”

“First of all let me say once more that my boyfriend is a writer, and he also made a fiction feature movie, actually.

“So he also kind of understood what our movie needs.

“Consciously, without me knowing, he took the role of the one who confronts me with these questions that he understood the audience would love to hear and would probably ask themselves as well.

“And I’m glad he did that.

“Getting to a little more personal level here, Oystein, my boyfriend, knows about my previous relationship, which was not the easiest.

“So he can read my personality quite easily.

“I trust too easily. Maybe I have a certain naivety.

“But on the other hand how I see myself is, once more, going by intuition, rather than intellect.

“I just go for things and it has very seldom misguided me.”

This is maybe a slight digression, but one thing that struck me in the film was that the prison where Karl-Bentil ends up looks almost like something out of a design magazine. What did you make of the prison?

“I remember when Americans were seeing that scene and they all thought that they were watching some hostel.

“The director, Benjamin Ree, decided to present Bertil alone in the film.

“But I visited Bertil in the prison quite often, and I was also there with Oystein.

“I was even invited to go beyond the visitors’ room so I went with Bertil and the inmates and the director of the film, so we had a sort of tourist guide, and it was amazing.

“It’s such an amazing place.

“Of course it’s the only prison like that in Norway.

“It’s not like every prison looks like this – this is sort of a new project.”

The film has been hugely acclaimed and got a great response everywhere. What do you think that is? What about it is touching a nerve with so many people, do you think?

“I think why it talks to people is simply because you probably feel the power of forgiveness.”

“Well, I privately call it a little emotional blackmail; of course, that’s a bit sarcastic.

“But I think why it talks to people is simply because you probably feel the power of forgiveness.

“And you feel the power of what happens when you talk eye to eye with whoever, and you see the human in each other.

“This is the outcome.

“People probably also like to reflect it onto their own lives.

“So many times back at Sundance people stopped me on the street and were telling me, I understood after seeing your movie that I have to forgive my offender, of whatever crime that was.

“In my opinion this is exactly what art should do.

“And this movie is a piece of art. The photographer, the editor and the director made such an amazing piece of art.

“And that’s exactly what it should be about.”