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Credit: Alan Trotter

Exit Through The Gift Shop

‘BANKSY WILL NEVER AGAIN HELP SOMEONE MAKE A DOCUMENTARY ABOUT STREET ART.’ That’s what we’re told at the end of Exit Through The Gift Shop, positioning the film as some kind of street artist manifesto. It is a conclusive statement. There is nothing more to be said on the subject. Banksy, perhaps the most influential street artist of all, has defined the movement he helped shape and popularise. ‘Banksy will never again help someone make a documentary about street art’. The message could not be clearer. Except there’s a problem. Banksy never helped anyone make a documentary about street art in the first place.

To say this film is ‘about street art’ is not strictly true. Sure, there are lots of street artists in the film. We get insight into a mysterious underground world. We see the difficulties and practicalities of crafting a work of art while working in darkness, in public, often in dangerous places, and whilst trying to avoid being caught. We also see the development of the street art movement, from the coming together of small independent artists and creatives to the birth of an industry, the establishment of street art workshops, factories and exhibitions. We see the commodification of vandalism. We see mainstream acceptance of something inherently anti-establishment – a paradox the film struggles to resolve. But while the film provides plenty of food for thought on both the literal facts and philosophical implications of street art, this only scratches the surface of what it offers.

In the film’s opening sequence, Banksy himself says “this film is, uh, the story of what happened when this guy tried to make a documentary about me, but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am.” That guy is Thierry Guetta, a French filmmaker on a mission to document the creation of street art, and to capture the artworks before they are destroyed. He travels the world, visiting as many prominent street artists as he can.

“Exit” sees Banksy turn the tables on Guetta. As such, it is no stretch to interpret “Exit” as a commentary on the documentary form itself.

Early scenes show Guetta harassing celebrities such as Shaquille O’Neal and Noel Gallagher, bringing into question the motives of the filmmaker. Does fame stop celebrities controlling their public image – if so, is this why Banksy values his anonymity so highly? Maybe the documentarian has a responsibility to show things as they really are – or maybe his responsibility is to create an alternative version of reality that best suits his (hopefully good) intentions? What kind of documentarian is Guetta? What kind is Banksy?

As well as raising all these questions, the film acts as a fascinating character study. Guetta films everything. Everything. It is a compulsion that leads many to question his sanity. When Guetta opens an art exhibition towards the end of the film many members of the public herald him as a genius, but his crew find him chaotic, impulsive and “maybe just retarded”. Guetta’s constant taping also raises questions about where you draw the line between passion and obsession. One particularly tense sequence sees Guetta stash tapes in his sock and lie to security guards over the course of a three-hour interrogation, just to keep hold of his footage.

“Exit” also offers a cynical view of the commercial art world. We meet a collector who tells us she keeps a Warhol painting – the first painting she ever bought – in the closet. This is already a sickening brag. But what lies below the surface of this brag is perhaps more sinister. The collector has artwork she doesn’t even display. The art has value not because it makes her feel something, but because it costs a lot of money. In other words, it is a commodity.

You will no doubt have heard people dismiss contemporary art as a scam. You may even believe this yourself. But whichever side of the fence you sit on, one thing is certain – this documentary will make you take stock of your beliefs.

Early on, Guetta introduces us to Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Andre the Giant OBEY logo. Fairey first creates the logo as a joke. He posts it on buildings all around his city just for the sake of doing so – he calls it an experiment in repetition. Then, to his surprise, people begin talking about it. They question what the logo means. As the buzz grows so does Fairey’s ambition. Soon the logos are appearing more often, on a much grander scale, all around the world. Fairey notes how the idea “gains real power from perceived power” – his totally meaningless logo, created on a whim, now signifies a major brand in mainstream fashion.

So, is the contemporary art world devoid of real talent, creativity and innovation? No – and this film alone is proof. Exit Through The Gift Shop lacks a set purpose or direction. Because it lacks an obvious agenda it deliberately resists interpretation. It resists categorisation. And by doing so, it resists commercialisation.

Banksy is an innovator. Guetta is an imitator. Once street art becomes mainstream, Guetta exploits his friendship with Banksy to launch his own career – he becomes a millionaire not because his work is good, but because people believe it is good. Banksy on the other hand doesn’t sell out, despite what some of his critics say. He takes his trademark social conscience and knowing wit, and applies them to the world of film. Today the artist continues to experiment, perhaps most notably in 2015 when he opened the Dismaland ‘bemusement park’ in Weston-Super-Mare. Banksy consistently criticizes galleries who sell his art for being ‘unauthorized’. Guetta, meanwhile, is selling prints online for upwards of £8,000.

Like a work of street art, this scrappily-assembled biopic can be taken at face value and be pretty entertaining. Or, it can be discussed, debated and dissected. There are as many interpretations as there are viewers. However, there are some characteristics of Exit Through The Gift Shop that all viewers will appreciate. It is fascinating, funny, at times tense, and throughout it remains authentic and original.

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