One of the many world premieres that enjoyed a warm response from Hot Docs’ opening weekend (here’s our take on another), Kirk Marcolina and Matthew Pond’s “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne” tells the remarkable story of their titular subject — a woman who went from a poor, single African-American mother from segregated 1950s America to becoming one of the world’s most notorious jewel thieves.
Doris Payne — now 81 years old — comes across as blissfully unapologetic and unusually inspirational in the film, which uses interviews with Payne and her friends and family as well as archival footage and recreations to tell her mind blowing tale. She was a
black woman traveling around the world hobnobbing in circles in Monte
Carlo and Paris in high end jewelry stores. She was convincing
people she was one of their ilk when in the States she had to sit at the
back of the bus. In some ways, she’s very much a pioneer for civil rights.
“I think there are lessons to be learned from Doris,” Pond told Indiewire this weekend. “There’s a real
joy that she has to her. And she lives in the moment. I think part of
what enables her to do what she does is her fearlessness. If she gets
caught and thrown in jail, she still maintains that joy. There’s no
deterrent for her because she has such an innate joy. Her happiness
level is set to a high bar.”
Pond — making his feature film debut with the film (Marcolina previously directed 2006’s doc “Camp Out” with Larry Grimaldi), went and visited Payne in an Orange County jail a little over 3 years ago after reading about her in the newspaper.
“I drove down to the jail and introduced myself,” he said. “She was behind the glass. I had a phone, and she had a phone, and we just started talking. From there, we developed a relationship and I’d go visit her once a week. She was released a few months after that and then Kirk and I started filming shortly thereafter.”
Pond said that the process that came after was easy in the sense that Payne very much likes the camera, but not so easy because she’s, well, a jewel thief.
“Part of her MO is to deceive people,” he said. “She lies, but she’s charming and sweet at the same time. So there was a lot of push-pull, push-pull. She was very guarded at times with what she’d share with us.”
“I think it was a case of mutual seduction,” added Marcolina. “We wanted to make a documentary about this interesting character but at the same time she is proud of being a jewel thief. She feels that this her legacy and she’s very proud of it. She wanted her story to be shared with the world. So she was seducing us because she had this great story and we were seducing her because we were providing an outlet for her to tell her story which she really wanted to get out there.”
Marcolina said working with Payne was always a bit complex.
“I always think of her like an onion,” he said.
“You peel back another layer and you see another side of Doris. At times,
we were charmed by her. At times, we wanted to pull our hair out. She
could be very frustrating and hard to work with. But most of the time it
was just fun to sit there and listen to her stories.”
So what were some of Pond and Marcolina’s favorite Doris tales?
“We were never entirely sure if what she was telling us was entirely truthful,” Pond said. “But we got the FBI files from the Freedom of Information Request and they backed up so much of what she had said. She escaped at least four times from custody. She told us about two of them. Jumping off trains, forging her way out of jail… She’s truly resourceful and outrageous and lives in the moment.”
Marcolina added that they’d wrap the interview and think there was no way that story could be true.
“And low and behold, we get the FBI files and it’s all true,” he said. “You’re never quite sure if she’s telling the truth or not at any given time. She lives in a world where creating stories and playing roles. So when those FBI files came in and backed up so much of what she said I was just ‘wow… she really is as good as she says she is.”
“Or even better,” Pond added. “She’s a badass with a good heart.”
Pond said he likes to think of “Doris Payne” as a “feel good crime story.”
“There’s no guns, there’s no violence,” he said. “She does take advantage of people but they are jewelry stores with insurance companies.”
Marcolina said that was how Payne seemed to feel about it.
“She would always say she’s not really hurting people,” he said. “They have insurance and they are just going to get paid by the insurance company. They might make more money that way then selling this ring. In her mind, she didn’t feel like she was doing any harm.”
Judging from the intense applause at the end of the film’s world premiere in Toronto, the audience so far seems to agree with Payne. You can see for yourself as the film continues what will surely be a healthy run on the festival circuit (and hopefully beyond).