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Exit Through the Gift Shop might be the only documentary where the documentarian is more fascinating than the film — and the film is quite fascinating. A documentary about street art and the shadowy enigmatic figures that create it sounds interesting; a documentary about street art made by one of those shadowy figures sounds captivating.
British street artist Banksy, whose work has become world-renowned (and expensive) in the last 5-10 years, has composed this documentary using hours upon hours of footage taken by a man named Thierry Guetta, a French-born American who beginning in 1999 began to follow several of the world’s most prolific street artists, including Shepard Fairey (the Obama “Hope” poster) and Banksy, with the idea of making his own street art documentary. When Guetta finally finished his documentary, Banksy determined it was crap and took the reigns from Guetta, pushing him to follow his own artistic passion. In the film, this is when Banksy turns the camera on Guetta, who builds his own street art identity, Mr. Brain-Wash, from basically nothing.
The result is a sort of two-sided documentary and one that many believe to be partially fabricated. Considering Banksy is one of the most elusive and mysterious artists in the world, it’s hard not to consider that his documentary might be just that — art. To explain, when Thierry Guetta starts to work on his own Mr. Brain-Wash art, he hires an extensive team of artists, graphic designers, sculptors and more to help bring his vision to life, so basically he buys his talent. Then, he uses his connections with Fairey and Banksy to score major endorsements and hype his show and his reputation as the next big thing. When his show becomes a runaway hit, we’re left wondering: what really constitutes an artist?
As such, the theory lingers out there as to whether Banksy, Fairey and Guetta were all collaborators on the aptly named “Mr. Brain-Wash” in order to shed a new light on the public perception of art and street art in particular. Doing so would boost the profile of the art form while also making people think twice about what they value as art both internally and with their wallets. However, if Banksy’s film contains no contrivances, it nevertheless gives more credence to him and Fairey as true artists.
Either way, the events could not be staged, especially all of Guetta’s footage in the first portion of the film. As for the second part, if Guetta truly created this persona with the genuine purpose of making his own art, people still flocked to see and buy his celebrity- themed Andy Warhol knock-offs, which turns out to be the take-home point of this part of the film. If anything, you could consider it a bit of a social experiment, just one where we as viewers are not allowed on the other side of the glass.
The film succeeds as both street art documentary and a character study on Guetta, though a distinct feeling that certain things worthy of explanation are left out pervades the film. Just that faint notion of viewer deception prevents “Gift Shop” from being an truly elite documentary. Because Banksy directed, you never get a sense of who is really behind the camera conducting interviews with him, Fairey and Guetta toward the end of the film. Traditional documentary filmmakers have that kind of “presence” in their films that legitimize the work they’re doing because we clearly sense the intention, but Banksy being the figure he is, clouds up our sight of his intention. Fascinating, yes, but the film leaves you confused in several places.
Exit Through the Gift Shop pushes the boundaries for what a documentary is and can be, which makes it one of the most unique films ever made. The lack of clarity and the question of authenticity, as distracting and bothersome as it may be, makes the film all the more intriguing. In the end, Banksy’s core question of who can be an artist and what constitutes an artist or art, rings loud and clear. That conversation will always be inextricably tied to all art forms forever.
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Directed by Banksy
Starring: Theirry Guetta, Banksy, Shepard Fairey