Film News

Banksy's "Gift" challenges conventional concepts

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Nonfiction cinema or provocation? Art or prank? Questions of authorship, authenticity and credibility cleave through “Exit Through the Gift Shop,” a nearly unclassifiable hybrid documentary film by international “street artist” phenom Banksy.

Artwork by the artist Banksy is shown on a wall during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah January 22, 2010. REUTERS/Robert Galbraith

Originally identified as “Spotlight Surprise” in the film listings, Sundance programmers revealed the title only a few days before its January 24 world premiere.

Touching on contemporary cultural trends, the popular/high art divide and celebrity obsession while showcasing world-renowned artists, “Exit” offers broad audience appeal, particularly for urban and international viewers captivated by underground art, as well as film fans fascinated by unconventional narrative techniques.

An outgrowth of the graffiti art that originated with ‘70s B-Boy culture, street art features the same outdoor locations and outlaw attitudes as its precursor, incorporating additional media into artworks, including stencils, posters, stickers and sculptural materials.

French expat Thierry “Terry” Guetta, a Los Angeles retailer and compulsive home videographer, gets caught up in the movement while accompanying his street artist cousin, a.k.a. Invader, on nighttime excursions posting his Space Invader mosaic images. After experiencing the adrenaline rush of documenting Invader illegally posting his guerrilla artwork, Guetta is hooked and begins seeking out other artists to film, including Shepard Fairey (who originated the “Obey” and Barack Obama poster-like images), Buff Monster and Neck Face.

Guetta rapidly gets drawn into the shadowy world of street art and begins traveling around the country and Europe assisting artists with their frequently illegal installations over an eight-year period on the pretext of making a documentary, despite his lack of any filmmaking experience.

The only one he can’t manage to connect with is the pseudonymously named British graffiti stencil artist Banksy, who obsessively conceals his identity from all but his closest associates. But in 2006, when Banksy arrives in Los Angeles, Guetta jumps at a chance opportunity to assist him, gradually working his way into the artist’s confidence, so that when Banksy asks Guetta to finally deliver his promised documentary, the Frenchman is practically obliged to comply.

Culling random images and footage from hundreds of videotapes, many undated or undocumented, Guetta produces “Life Remote Control” a 90-minute documentary so unwatchable that Banksy questions whether Guetta may just be “someone with mental problems and a camera.” So he sends his protege on a new mission that entirely flips the arc of the film, inserting Banksy in the role of filmmaker and casting Guetta as the street artist Mr. Brainwash, providing the Frenchman with a shot at fame like he’d previously only dreamed of.

The outcome is a nested film structure, with Guetta’s rough, run-and-gun footage of artists at work serving as the departure point for Banksy’s more polished perspective on the intricacies of the artistic process, the commodification of art and the nature of celebrity. Banksy appears both at work in Guetta’s footage with his features obscured and in an on-camera interview wearing a hooded sweatshirt, his face hidden and voice disguised.

Slyly narrated by actor Rhys Ifans and featuring extensive interviews with Banksy as well as Guetta, an enigmatic and self-aggrandizing subject whose frequently amusing and improbable statements stretch credibility, “Exit Through the Gift Shop” also includes exclusive footage of well-known street artists creating their work.

The title appears to be a tongue-in-cheek reference to the commercial aspect of art exhibition and sales.