Deceiving his subject was key to uncovering the truth about his art, says documentary director
Portrayal tells the story of an art fabricator and his grandson’s quest to shine a light on his legacy
It wasn't that I was lying to Israeli artist Oz Almog; I just wasn't telling him everything. In my documentary, Portrayal, I chose to withhold a big part of the story to get him to be a willing participant.
In 2018, I travelled to Vienna to meet him and to film an initial interview. At first, I was star-struck: Almog was a celebrity. I had extensively researched his work and had intimate knowledge of his past and artistic practices. He was unaware of the depth of my knowledge and had only a carefully curated understanding of the film I was making. Based on our conversations, he believed it was a documentary on his life and career. Although that was partly true, he didn't know Portrayal was an investigation into the questionable authorship of his work.
Almog employed an art fabricator
When he was only 12, Roman Lapshin learned a secret from his grandfather, painter Vladimir Dvorkin: that Dvorkin had spent a lifetime creating thousands of pieces of artwork that were then missing. In fact, as a penniless new immigrant, Dvorkin had entered into an exploitative relationship with Almog that lasted decades. And Almog had owned and exhibited Dvorkin's works and claimed them as his own.
Dvorkin had honoured his pact with Almog not to publicly disclose his involvement, but home movies and photographs found in a box buried in Dvorkin's home revealed he was indeed the artist behind many of Almog's most well-known works.
I went into the investigation with an open mind. The story needed to be verified by Almog and not just accepted as fact.
I didn't share the full truth about my film to Almog
Almog knew who I was. I didn't conceal my identity in any way. If he were to have researched me or my films, he would have known I've made a career of investigative journalism that exposes injustices. I always wondered why someone who had never before let a journalist in his studio wasn't suspicious of my interest in him — especially when he had something so big to hide.
I still remember the moment I was in Almog's studio and became fully conscious of what I was doing there. This man thought I was documenting his accomplishments, but really I was giving him a platform to incriminate himself for the sake of a good story. Was I a bad person? This question would haunt me as I knowingly let Almog lead me down the path to his own demise.
The deception made me uneasy
I wanted to call off the production at one point, but my team continuously consoled me and reassured me I was simply telling the truth. I started seeing a therapist. I became paranoid. I even got sick with anxiety.
But what was the cost of this truth? Was the truth so important that someone's career had to be sacrificed? I was torn because I grew fond of Almog and thought he was brilliant and seemingly fearless. Maybe he was exploitative, but so was I.
At times, I suspected Lapshin's account — that it was his grandfather who had painted many of Almog's masterpieces — was not the full truth. Other times, I believed Almog had forgotten the truth or even convinced himself of the lie he was telling.
But I was making the best movie I had ever made. I deluded myself with the hopeful and optimistic fantasy that even Almog would think it was brilliant. Perhaps he would be proud to be the centre of such a story, even if it cast him in a dubious light.
In my despair, I asked Almog, "What if someone hurts someone's feelings with the art they make?" He responded, "An artist should make whatever art he is compelled to make regardless [of] who he hurts. If someone gets hurt, then bad luck."
I hoped he would remember his advice to me when he discovered the context in which I was seeking it. The more he spoke about the artist's right to offend, the more justified and less bad I felt about making the film.
The truth is finally uncovered
When Lapshin, posing as one of my camera operators, accompanied me to shoot Almog in his studio in Serbia, the intention was to pick the right moment to tactfully confront Almog and reveal the full truth. But when Almog overheard one of our crew calling Lapshin by his name, he realized what was going on. He kicked us out of his studio and never spoke to me again.
Her truth. Your truth. His truth. Truth is in the eye of the beholder.- Oz Almog
After several unsuccessful attempts to reconcile and work together to release the film, I can only take comfort in Almog's philosophy that art is supposed to be offensive — although, evidently, he didn't believe it should offend him.
What I learned from this investigation is that most people who are being probed as the subjects of a documentary live somewhere between lies and the truth — and in those gaps is where we find the most important stories. Truth is readily available to the filmmaker only if they commit to drawing it out by whatever means necessary. This may require some level of manipulation to accomplish. If not done carefully it can cut the best elements of a good story short.
Billie Mintz is the director of the film, Portrayal.