by Natasha Abramova
“He unknowingly exposes himself as a liar. It was equally awkward and uncomfortable for me as an investigative journalist having to take this approach knowing it was ironically necessary in order to ultimately tell the real truth.”
Hot Docs, North America’s largest documentary festival, conference and market, is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to advancing and celebrating the art of documentary and to creating production opportunities for documentary filmmakers. Hot Docs presented a virtual version of its 28th annual festival from April 29-May 9, 2021, during which a full roster of industry conference sessions, market programs and networking events were held for Canadian and international delegates. This included the renowned Hot Docs Forum, Hot Docs Deal Maker, Distribution Rendezvous and The Doc Shop.
This year’s festival consisted of 219 long, mid-length, and short films from 66 countries across 12 programs. It was available, for the first time, to audiences across Canada.
One picture from the Artscapes program, Portrayal, caught my attention. This is a docudrama about an artist and an artisan, who they were and what they thought they were. Three brave men – a producer, a filmmaker and the film’s protagonist – fearlessly dive into a real-life plot on fraud and hundreds of paintings in the possession of the story’s ‘bad guy’.
As a part of the Immersive Van Gogh project, and as a person who connects emotionally with the story of neglected artists, I was compelled to talk to the Director of “Portrayal” – Billie Mintz. A few years of work, across three continents still Billie still can’t stop thinking about what has happened to him and to his crew. This is what he had to say on the matter:
Portrayal investigates claims against internationally recognized Israeli painter Oz Almog (“Oz”), who allegedly created a false narrative surrounding his career by claiming authorship of paintings that were not his own. Oz built his reputation on this body of work and has to date evaded any inquiry regarding its authenticity except for one unsuspected intervening event: this documentary. What was initially positioned as a straightforward biography documenting Oz’s success has inevitably turned into an exposé of the deception he committed in the process of “creating” this biography. Leading the charge to uncover the truth is Roman Lapshin, the grandson of Vladimir Dvorkin, whom Roman has learned is the real painter of Oz’s works. Roman is spearheading his own investigation with the full hope and intention of confronting and exposing Oz. At the same time, he is hiding the full truth about these plans from his own family in order to secure their cooperation, leading them to believe that he is only participating in this film for the more altruistic goal of exhibiting his grandfather’s work to the world.
Roman initially approached me with the story of his late grandfather, Vladimir Dvorkin, a prolific painter who emigrated from Russia to Israel to escape anti-Semitism and start a new life with more opportunity for his family. Broken and penniless, he had to start his life all over again after serving five years in prison for a crime he did not commit. He went to the streets of Israel to sell portraits, which was very humbling for a painter of such experience living in a country where no one knew his name or of his decorated past. Roman then told me about a man named Oz Almog who discovered Vladimir on the street and hired him to be his "assistant", beginning a relationship that enabled Vladimir to earn a living to support his family but ultimately took advantage of the immigrant painter, leaving him in the shadows while Oz gained fame claiming the paintings to be from his own hand. It was a wild tale that sounded a little unbelievable and worthy of investigation. Roman, now an adult and believing he has to fulfill his dead grandfather’s wishes to tell the world the truth and exhibit his body of work in his own name, is preparing to confront Oz and take possession of the body of work rumoured to be in the thousands.
In order to get the full story, I had to approach Oz and find a way for him to participate in the film, which required me to engage in some creative manipulation of the truth myself since Oz would not cooperate if he knew what motivated my investigation. I could not reveal my knowledge of Roman and Dvorkin and their relationship to him. I could only reveal the portion of the truth which Oz wanted to hear – that the purpose of my documentary was to explore his background and what it was that enabled him to become such a prolific and successful artist and also to explore generally what it takes and what it means to have success as an artist, as well as the costs of achieving that success. All of which was still an accurate representation of what we were doing. Although reluctant, Oz agreed to participate and maintained the story that he was the real painter throughout our initial interviews in the development stage of the film.
Oz is a fascinating antagonist for this documentary. He starts as the protagonist but once the audience realizes that he is living a lie and that Roman is determined to expose it, they too get immersed in the web of lies through dramatic irony. While the audience becomes fully cognizant of the deception that took place, Oz continues to perform a lie for me and the crew. Contributing to what he believes is solely a film on his extensive catalogue and creative process, he unknowingly exposes himself as a liar. It was equally awkward and uncomfortable for me as an investigative journalist having to take this approach knowing it was ironically necessary in order to ultimately tell the real truth. I had to be extremely diligent and careful in gathering the facts given the sensitivity of the information I was collecting, which could ultimately offend or humiliate the artist. Oz is open and because he is unaware of my knowledge of his past, he is constantly giving me information that would normally be protected.
After some coaxing, he hesitantly agreed to meet me at a café before deciding to be a part of the film. I flew to Vienna and staked out the meeting place the day before and found a vantage point for the camera so we could film the initial meeting, while Roman sat upstairs watching the whole thing unfold. From this vantage point, Roman had his very first glimpse of the mysterious man of his family’s fairy tales. Because I also had a camera on Roman, I caught something that I did not foresee: Roman realizing that he might not be entirely right about Oz’s character. I soon realized that although the events of history in Roman’s story are true and need further investigation, the immorality may not be so black and white. What I thought was a story about Oz became a journey of Roman coming to terms with the reality of a world where Oz exists and is needed. There became a new facet of this complicated story: the realization that Oz isn’t as bad as we thought he was. Even though Roman ends up confirming that his allegations about Oz are in fact true, he also comes to understand more about the decisions his grandfather needed to make as an immigrant needing to provide for his family and their future – the future that Roman inhabits. Roman is a young man caught in the story that his very identity had been shaped around, unable to face the truth that everyone around him is trying to get him to accept.
Portrayal is a quixotic tale of a sheltered young man who confronts his family’s controversial mythology and ends up learning about himself. This is an outrageous tale of a young boy who was so affected by his grandfather’s mythology that he carried another man’s burden with him until he himself was consumed by it. Now, in his mid twenties, he finally decides to track the man down and confront him while demanding justice for his late grandfather through the restoration of his paintings to their rightful owners – his family. What we have is a self-reflective film that explores truth and exploitation. Oz is withholding the full truth from the people; I am withholding the full truth from Oz; and Roman is withholding the full truth from his family about what he is doing.
As the story develops, similarities between the men emerge. Both are so committed to a narrative so personal to them that they refuse to see the facts. Through the intimate documentation of exploitation, the film suggests that history is not always truthful or factual and that relationships made in the name of art are always expendable. Every story that involves history has different versions depending on who is telling it. My interest in filming this documentary was to follow the journey of a young man who came of age while trying to find the truth to the story that was told to him in his childhood by his grandfather. This is a story about family, immigration, art, and exploitation. The film itself wrestles with an unreliable narrator and takes the audience on a wild ride through several countries as we confront the ghosts of the past.
Portrayal will be available soon in Canada on the CBC Documentary Channel and CBC Gem. Release date TBC.
This article is sponsored by Palette Art Supplies ~ Available for curbside pick-up in Vaughan, Ontario