“I’m Banksy!” proclaimed pop-singer Justin Timberlake, while presenting the award for best documentary feature during this year’s Oscars, an obvious spoof on the anonymity of one of today’s most recognized and discussed street artists. Yet, Timberlake’s claim was as valid as anyone’s; Banksy has proven to be one of the most elusive figures in the controversial artistic movement. Highly regarded across the globe for his striking graffiti pieces, Banksy uses pop culture icons, satire, and slogans to convey his anti-authoritarian views. Despite his international fame, he keeps his identity a secret and refuses to give interviews.
So who is Banksy? This question drove French street art enthusiast Thierry Guetta to obsessively hunt for the artist, ultimately inspiring Banksy’s self-directed, reactionary documentary, Exit Though the Gift Shop (2010). Pretending to be a budding filmmaker, Guetta gained Banksy’s trust; Banksy invited him to his workplace, where he showed him previously unseen work and the two worked on many projects together. The successful street artist hoped to use Guetta’s film to show the public the real graffiti art movement and to attack the institutionalized and commercialized mess street art has become. However, when he saw the video footage Guetta compiled, he realized that Guetta was a fake whose only intention was to become established in the street art world. Annoyed, Banksy created this documentary to express his views on street art that Guetta’s film failed to express.
The film is a compilation of Guetta’s film (the footage he took when still pretending to be a filmmaker to get closer to Banksy) that introduces the inexperienced viewer to the beauty of street art. It depicts mostly young graffiti artists as they use their talent and unique visions, often satirically fueled by pop culture, to express their views on society, the government, and human nature. But rather than giving a reporter-like, outsider’s view into street art, the film gives an insider’s perspective on the creation and assembly of the work, while showing the artists’ passion for what they do. Interviews with street artists put faces on the anonymous figures that dominate the street art scene, giving the film a more intimate, authentic feel.
In this documentary, Banksy showcases his talents with not only spray paint, but also film. What makes this documentary so enjoyable to watch is its defiant feel; the people in the movie are rebelling against the art institution, as well as the law. Seeing them passionately and persistently engage in illegal behavior—sometimes even running from policemen to create their art—is as inspiring as it is alluring. The hazy, often shaky night scenes are intriguing despite their amateur feel.
On top of this, the film satirizes the art world for its institutionalization of street art. In one scene, when Guetta interviews a woman who collects and frames pieces of Banksy’s work, Banksy makes snarky comments about her obliviousness, showing clear resentment for those who treat his art and other street art as decoration. He loathes the price tag it now has for eager collectors, tying in with the title’s reference to how street art is quickly becoming a business full of clones that do not focus on a message but rather the hopeful attainment of fame.
Exit Through the Gift Shop succeeds in portraying Guetta as overeager, often confused and occasionally annoying, with his persistent filming, nosy attitude, and never-ending questions. But it fails in its mission to present him as a manipulator. Instead, we form somewhat of a sympathetic bond with the aspiring artist, and we see his passion for street art and the risks he took in order to explore it. In one scene, Banksy sets up a Guantanamo Bay prisoner dummy in Disneyland to promote his gallery, Barely Legal. Guetta remained tight-lipped for four hours when taken into questioning by police at Disneyland after being spotted filming Bansky’s installation and final product. Despite Banksy’s best efforts, Guetta comes out as the devoted fan rather than the scheming conman.
It is unclear whether Guetta was aware of the stance the documentary took when he filmed his interviews (his portion of interviews was taken from his own collection of film that Banksy seized after Guetta’s failed documentary was made). Yet, many also believe that the film might be a fake in itself, simply a hoax the two orchestrated for the public.
But no matter what its intention, Exit through the Gift Shop states a resounding “yes” to the heated debate over whether or not graffiti is art. Banksy’s featured works in the film deal with relevant, anti-authoritarian sociopolitical themes. It’s a must-see for anyone interested in street art or the visual arts, in general, as it will give one an inside look at today’s artists at work. Through the eyes of one of the most notorious street artists, one can find the true art in graffiti.