Day Two, Meeting with Thieves. It rained. We stood waiting in the drizzle in a park behind some kiddie carnival rides, pretty certain they wouldn’t show up. I mean, it’s crazy to think a pickpocket will keep an appointment anyway. Let alone in the rain.
We waited half an hour. But—we had arrived half an hour early.
Here’s where I shouldn’t say more. Just…stay tuned! The feature film will be out in about a year! [Actually, on December 2, 2011 on the National Geographic Channel, 8pm] But c’mon… you’ll have forgotten in a year, right? Or maybe you’ll see the film anyway, even if I kill the suspense. I can tell you…
Ed showed up first. Frank zipped up on his motorcycle moments later, and Marc came from somewhere. All prompt.
We needed the thieves to sign releases before our production company could film them. Ed had questions. We squabbled in the rain until until someone herded us under the trees where it was dryer. Our big cameras moved in and circled the group. A few men wandered in from the street, obvious friends and partners of the pickpockets. A full hour of heated philosophizing: Why do you want to see demonstrations? Why do you want to know these things? What you do on stage is totally different from what we do in the street. What we do is not something to be proud of.
Finally, an agreement is reached and releases are signed. They are “anonymous releases,” meaning that we’ll have to blur their faces. That’s such a shame. These are expressive men, with eyes you’d want to see.
The rain stops and the demonstrations begin. The men had brought their tools: floppy messenger bags, a shopping bag. jackets, caps, and sunglasses. We had brought a man in a suit as a volunteer victim.
Frank, Marc, and Ed position our victim next to a lamp post and tell him to pretend he’s on a bus. Then they take their places like dancers in a ballet, without words. Instantly and automatically, the three men position themselves around him. Their pal Clay appears and joins in. The victim is jostled a little, and we are allowed a glimpse of what the men would usually hide: Frank’s hand in the victim’s breast pocket. We see Frank’s hand drop and the wallet fall into a shopping bag that Clay holds low. None of the men look at what they’re doing. It’s all by rote and intuition.
The men split and disperse in four directions. Applause. All our film crew are beaming, thrilled on so many levels. They’ve never associated with pickpockets. They’ve never seen how a steal is done by professional criminals. They got the demo on camera. And they’re a little queasy to find that they’re amused by the technical skills of thieves.
It’s not just their technical skills, though. It’s their cooperation, their exuberance, their humanness. They’ve become the opposite of cold and faceless.
Is it okay to enjoy this? Everyone’s high-fiving and thumbs-upping. The pride of the men is rewarded with amazement and glee. The thieves are so darn likable. Can we let ourselves actually like them? Should we pretend to ourselves that we’re just pretending to like them?
The director wants another take and the team is happy to repeat the scene. They’re having fun and tickled by the director’s call: Aaaaaand… action!
There are more demonstrations: how to get money out of a wallet without removing the wallet from the pocket, how to get cash out of a pouch under trousers, how much harder it is to get a wallet out of the back pocket of jeans if the wallet is jammed in sideways.
For fun, Bob steals a belt. We see the lightbulb go on over Frank. Moneybelts! “Teach me that trick!” he says, “Please!” We didn’t mean to give him new ideas. Laughing, Bob and I imagine puzzled police officer, suddenly taking reports of stolen belts all across town.
We continue for hours. The conversation is animated. It’s like a party without the cocktails. Michele is translating, recording sound, and watching his monitor levels all at the same time, while smiling. We have two other translators, and everyone’s talking at once. Our poor director has to yell for silence more than action.
It’s past 7:00 by the time we all leave the park. I wonder what the pickpockets tell their wives when they return home without cash. We made a movie! We laughed and had fun with foreigners! Yeah, right.
This is Part 10 of THE MAKING OF OUR NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DOCUMENTARY, PICKPOCKET KING. The film is about us, Bob Arno and Bambi Vincent. We are “thiefhunters in paradise.” The paradise we chose for the story is the warm and wild city of Naples, Italy, home to the world’s best pickpockets. The documentary premieres December 2 at 8pm ET/PT on the National Geographic Channel.
—Originally posted 9/20/10 and soon thereafter password-protected at the request of the producer.