Romy Shiller

Exit Through the Gift Shop

In Film, review on August 30, 2011 at 5:35 pm

Only the truth is revolutionary. – Graffiti quote

Director: Banksy
Stars: Banksy, Thierry Guetta and Space Invader

I’ve already lived a lot in this lifetime and because I never gave a crap about conforming to a so-called norm, I’ve met very unique people and was witness to some extraordinary events. Several years ago, I dated a graffiti artist. My gifts included spray paintings on canvass. One was of Spider-Man. Cool, right? Anyhow, this film evoked many memories and was informed by my relationship.

Plot: Banksy is a graffiti artist with a global reputation whose work can be seen on walls from post-hurricane New Orleans to the separation barrier on the Palestinian West Bank. He fiercely guards his anonymity to avoid prosecution. An eccentric French shop keeper turned documentary maker attempts to locate and befriend Banksy, only to have the artist turn the camera back on its owner. Includes footage of Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Invader and many of the world’s most infamous graffiti artists at work, on walls and in interview. As Banksy describes it, “It’s basically the story of how one man set out to film the un-filmable. And failed.”

This film might be a mockumentary and not a documentary – here we go again. I reviewed ‘I’m Still Here,’ a very convincing mockumentary. A review said; for your first question to someone to be “Are you real?” might seem a bit rude, but in the case of the French street artist Thierry Guetta, such basics are strangely necessary.

Bansky said;I paint my own pictures but I get a lot of help building stuff and installing it. I have a great little team, but I tell you what – they all hate this fucking film. They don’t care if its effective, they feel very strongly that Mr Brainwash is undeserving of all the attention. Most street artists feel the same. This film has made me extremely unpopular in my community.” I can imagine that street artists would have a hard time with this film but it was so necessary.

Guetta basically is obsessed with filming and always has a camera in his hand. He tells all of these graffiti-artists he meets that he’s making a documentary – he isn’t. He starts off as the owner of a store filled with vintage clothes. An encounter with his cousin ‘Space Invader’ leads him to the street-art world. He eventually makes stickers or decals and joins the street-art scene. He hears about Banksy and is determined to meet him. I don’t blame him! Banksy decides that Guetta is more interesting than he is and makes a documentary about him, encouraging him to pursue street art.

On a Valentine’s Day, Guetta, adopting the name Mr. Brainwash, had a big art exhibit in the Meatpacking District in New York with models and actors in attendance. If the whole stunt was intended as a joke about art and authenticity — a twist on the old “a monkey could do it” line — it appears to have far exceeded its maker’s intentions. Shrouded in shadow, Banksy ends the documentary wondering if he did the right thing launching Mr Brainwash on the world. “Andy Warhol was replicating images to show they were meaningless,” he says. “And now, thanks to Mr. Brainwash, they’re definitely meaningless.”

Many people believe that Guetta is actually the elusive Banksy and are buying Guetta’s art-work just in case. One of the larger works — a giant portrait of Madonna — sold to a private collector for $200,000. Shortly afterwards Madonna asked him to design her album Celebration:

I lived in Paris, France for a few months. At the time, I was really into graffiti, so most of my photos are about these. To me, they were urban works of art. I was able to find a lot near subway stops. The artists were anonymous, so I could reflect on the work without the distraction of personality. I am still glad I did not take any pictures of tourist spots or familiar destinations, like the Eiffel Tower. What I did shoot reminds me of who I was at the time. As usual, it was far from conventional. These pictures are of “my” Paris. (Shiller, You Never Know: A Memoir pp.105-6.)

The film received overwhelmingly positive reviews, holding 98% on  Rotten Tomatoes, and was nominated for  Best Documentary in the  2011 Academy Awards. One consistent theme in the reviews was the authenticity of the film: Was the film just an elaborate ruse on Banksy’s part, or did Guetta really evolve into  Mr. Brainwash overnight? The New York Times movie reviewer Jeannette Catsoulis wrote that the film could be a new subgenre, a “prankumentary”.

New York Film Critics Online bestowed its Best Documentary Award on the film in 2010

I like that this film shows process. Graffiti art-work is rarely spoken about and this film, even if it’s fake, highlights an art-form that many people are oblivious about. I believe that this film is important.

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online

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