A photograph passes for incontrovertible proof that a given thing happened. The picture may distort; but there is always a presumption that something exists, or did exist, which is like what’s in the picture. Whatever the limitations (through amateurism) or pretensions (through artistry) of the individual photographer, a photograph — any photograph — seems to have a more innocent, and therefore more accurate, relation to visible reality than do other mimetic objects.
— Susan Sontag, On Photography
It’s boring to watch a documentary. We tried to build a little suspense and make it feel like a film, but have the subject matter hit you in the face as realistically as possible.
— Malik Bader, Chicago Sun-Times (20 June 2007)
You’re not gonna get a sob story out of me.
— Kaspar Carr
Street Thief offers up all kinds of documentary affect. Its first two minutes show a burglary via handheld jiggling and quick, surveillance-style zooms, its subject, a man in black busting into a corner market. His moves are precise and the soundtrack spare, the camera noting details that might interest a thief who’s gone inside a shop to bust open a cash register or a safe, say, a cruiser rolling by. The camera holds, briefly, waiting across the street, then runs through a series of “across-the-street” shots, all booming and pulsing, so you can imagine the action inside.
The film offers such opportunity for imagining repeatedly. When Kaspar, the thief, appears close-up in the next scene, he’s safe in his home and counting the night’s haul. He’s cocky, leading the camera crew along on his adventures; they’re giddy at the chance to shoot crime as it happens, from across the street or inside his lair. He shares his thinking about his vocation, they ride along in his car. “I was like, seven, eight years old,” he says. His grandmother, “a little old lady [who] doesn’t speak a word of fucking English,” took him “shopping,” that is, she took him inside a shop where she stole candy from the shelves, stuffing it into her purse and pockets as the boy watched wide-eyed. When they walked out together, untouched, unsuspected, he was thrilled.
According to Kaspar, he was hooked at this moment, by the risk, excitement, and success. When his interviewer wonders why he’s chosen to be a “professional thief,” Kaspar makes plain his disapproval of the very question. Not only is there no such thing (you won’t find a thief in the “yellow pages,” he snorts), but he’s unwilling to give up information about his background. “You’re not gonna learn why this man is a burglar, why he has this sickness, why he’s psychologically fucked,” he says. Insisting that they stick to the apparent agreement — a film about “the way shit really goes down” — Kaspar boasts, “I’m two steps ahead of you.” The filmmakers won’t be tricking him into any kind of confession or candidness. His performance will remain intact.
The camera looks up at Kaspar as he drives, smoking cigarettes and peering through dark sunglasses. He seems to know his value, his limits, and how to manage both expectations and surprises. He seems to know just how to be the titular “street thief,” to involve his new acquaintances in his illegal activities; as they watch and document him, they might be him as a seven-year-old, awed by his expertise, feeling lucky to come along and to “learn.” Back at his apartment, Kaspar cooks dinner for his guests, acting just rowdy enough — eating directly from the frying pan — to suggest his suitable on-the-edge-ness. He’s profane, rude, and angry. He chastises the filmmakers when they step wrong, endanger his enterprise. Determinedly, romantically lonely (“It’s part of the game, you know, you gotta choose one thing or another”), he’s the cool cat they wanted to record. And Kaspar, well, he’s probably not who they want him to be. He’s also played by the film’s director, Malik Bader.
Street Thief comes to A&E via A&E IndieFilms, the network’s “feature documentary arm.” Its selection for this particular imprimatur doesn’t make it any more convincing as a straight-up documentary, but it does bring to bear the serious, smart questions it raises about the genre. As the film constructs a complex relationship between the barely glimpsed filmmakers and their subject, Street Thief poses the same sorts of questions raised by Man Bites Dog or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, other faux-docs concerned with lies and truth, crime and evidence.
These questions are twofold, at least. What is an artist’s moral or legal responsibility when observing unlawful activity? (The broader version of this question includes journalists observing and reporting on violence and wartime: how does one watch without acting to save a victim?) Another question has to do with the function of documentary film (or, as Susan Sontag frames it, photography): how to gauge the veracity of images, by definition selected, staged, and edited? In the case of Kaspar, this issue becomes increasingly acute, as he begins nearly to “direct” the film about him, instructing the filmmakers as to camera set-ups, timing, and collusion. As they shoot, they participate. When things go wrong, their footage becomes official evidence, delivered to the police with the help of an attorney paid to look out for the filmmakers’ legal status. And still, the image before you might not be completely “true.”
Kaspar himself serves as a complicated, constantly swirling center for such dilemmas. Apparently been introduced to the filmmakers through Larry, an inmate they interview “inside” prison (clips from this interviews are cut into the seeming “present” action), Kaspar may or may not be his name, just as his work with the filmmakers may or may not be for real. The question about him is not precisely what’s real and false, but what is convincing, what moment seems credible, what assertion might be misleading.
Kaspar is a post-reality TV concoction, conscious of his 15 minutes and cynical (Bader played a role in Death of a President, another recent film challenging presumed limits of documentary representation). When the filmmakers “get too close,” during one job, he stops the action suddenly, then confronts them with his decision to “put this shit on hold.” A filmmaker, “Rob Rogers,” steps into frame to work something out. “You’re looking at it from a different point of view,” says Kaspar. Exactly. And always, as Sontag observes, “The picture may distort.”