Exit Through The Gift Shop

Director    Unknown
Starring    Banksy, Thierry, Rhys Ifans
Release    TBA (US) 5 MAR (UK)    Certificate 15
4 stars


10th March 2010

Art isn't dead - but that's only because of the lifeline it has been given by the phenomenon of graffiti and street art, pioneered by the renegade trail-blazer with a spray can: Banksy.

The ingeniously subversive, society-challenging street art emblazoned on otherwise oppressive concrete walls around the world represents what art should be about far more than the crap that is thrown up for the Turner prize each year. Banksy has done for graffiti what Michelangelo once did for classic painting. Despite the vitality of Banksy's work, it is technically illegal - hence his continuing anonymity. A documentary made by this elusive pioneer and allegedly about him then, is an enticingly promising prospect.  
Prior to entering, you can't imagine how Banksy could be the subject of a documentary whilst still keeping his secret identity intact. But, Banksy, the mercurial figure that he is, always has a trick up his sleeve - and that proves the case with this exploratory film. Exit Through The Gift Shop is a bit of a hall of mirrors; Banksy is in it, face blacked out, talking candidly and sardonically about the counter-culture movement he became famous - or infamous - for. Yet this isn't technically a documentary about him. It's a documentary about a filmmaker who tried to make a documentary about him. How's that for a post-modern idea?

As it turns out, Banksy isn't the only street artist with a profile; there is a whole underground anarchic army of them, all with their own signature style. We see them here through effectively gritty, gonzo-style doc-footage as a self proclaimed 'French filmmaker' Thierry lurks in the night time shadows of the urban jungle with them. Here he experiences the heart-pumping adrenaline - that appears to be the buzz motivating these spray-can pimpernels - as they hit the walls with all kinds of vividly satirical art attacks. The first twenty minutes are thrilling as you realize that street art is the closet thing we have to a genuine punk movement and this is the footage that will champion said movement.
[gallery]It's not Bansky who is centre stage then - it's the charismatic French filmmaker who endeared himself to the street artists with his puppy-dog enthusiasm. His story is quite unbelievable and therefore highly amusing, and the tone of the film is careful to play it uncertain as to whether he is hapless and talentless or some-sort of inspirational genius. Come the end, it is quite clear what his peers think of him, and the title of this may be a wry hint at what Banksy suspects really motivates Thierry.   
The film about a film idea is a clever conceit, which allows Banksy to reflect and pay tribute to his art without the self-aggrandising that typically arises from subjects making a film about things they are involved in. It only really scratches the surface in regards to Banksy though - you find yourself longing to see more of his art on the big screen and a deeper exploration of the rise of his innovation.
Street art works wonderfully well as a visual display on the silver-screen; the numerous montages compiled of various works blatantly enlivening the gloom in London, Paris and LA provide considerable spectacle. They momentarily free the minds of those who didn't know they had an appetite for art, and come the close, you find yourself wishing Thierry's camera could have lingered on their work for longer.

Seeing footage of the street artists' head-turning stunts, and hearing about the numerous urban adventures they have, makes for a great documentary. One particular story, when Bansky decided to brazenly try out his art at a Disney theme park, reveals a grippingly tense close call with authority - let's just say Banksy and his cameraman accomplice found the Disney security to be anything but happy-clappy.  
In a world where the brainwashing ad-men use city walls to sell, it's great to see a revealing documentary about the counter-culture and the artists who use those walls - not to sell, but to satirize. The streets are alive with edgy art - graffiti is gratifying, street art is a revolution.

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