Documentary “Exit Through the Gift Shop” sheds new light on street art

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This film review column will be a little different than ones you would find in most papers. Typically, reviews are focused on movies that just came out and have gotten a relatively high amount of publicity. However, I do not believe that Hollywood could produce something I would recommend on a monthly basis. That leaves me in the awkward position of writing a scathing review of a movie I dislike, to a readership that would probably not see it anyway. I have little interest in writing a column where I deride someone else’s art every month; it is boring to write, and more importantly, boring to read. Therefore this column will focus on movies that have been out for a while but have been underrated since their release. I will begin with the documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop.

There are a lot of groundbreaking documentaries released every year, with a huge range of unique and interesting subjects and settings, from politics to ecological concerns. That said, I am almost certain that Exit Through the Gift Shop does something utterly original, perhaps for the first time in the history of documentary film making.

This Academy Award-nominated documentary revolves around street art, which most people would refer to as “really good graffiti,” and its various artists throughout the world. We are introduced in the beginning to Thierry Guetta, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles with a compulsion to film everything he sees, whether he is grocery shopping, playing with his kids, or driving on the interstate. Guetta is introduced to street art by his cousin, referred to only as “Space Invader,” an established presence in the street art world, and begins to film him as he works. He gets more and more involved in the underground world, meeting an A-list of street artists including Swoon, Ron English, and Shepard Fairey. Eventually, Guetta meets the enigmatic and anonymous artist Banksy, causing something I have never seen in a documentary before: the subject and the documentarian switch roles, as Guetta transforms himself into an alter ego, Mr. Brainwash, with Banksy taking over as filmmaker.

The novelty of a complete reversal is not all this film has going for it. Documentaries are always interesting when they show a hidden world to people, and there is quite a beautiful hidden world to be seen. Colorful characters that sneak around, creating art that they know will be destroyed within days, has a certain romantic quality to it that makes the film immensely enjoyable. Many of the artists refuse to give their real names, or show their faces, because their work is in, as Banksy puts it, “a legal grey area”; moreover, the story is so bizarrely dramatic that some have even questioned whether the film is a hoax. There are numerous conspiracy theories that involve Banksy scripting the whole film and creating Thierry Guetta as a form of self-promotion or as a prank. While there is little evidence to substantiate this idea, it is certainly possible, as it fits with Banksy’s sense of humor and anarchistic ideals. Personally, I think the story is so bizarre that it almost has to be true. Ultimately, it does not really matter if the movie is truly a documentary or, as some call it, a “prankumentary.” Even if it is an elaborately constructed piece of mischievous art created by Banksy, it is a colossal success. Stylishly directed, fast-paced and always interesting, Exit Through the Gift Shop communicates its questions on the nature of art and commercialism very effectively without ever being pretentious. This documentary is a must-see for art fans and anyone curious about the story of the graffiti they see around them.

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