Exit Through The Gift Shop

Exit Through The Gift Shop

***

Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

Shining a spotlight on the nature of art in anonymity versus a celebrity culture that breeds success, Exit Through The Gift Shop is not so much a single-minded documentary as a compendium of ideas. Directed, at least as far as the credits claim, by underground street artist Banksy, it is every bit as quirky, engaging and rebellious as the artwork it aims to celebrate. Sadly, it also shares graffiti's tendency to be energetic but scattergun and ephemeral. This is art - and for that matter documentary - as an act of defiance.

Everything about this film could, in fact, be a fiction - with the exception of the artwork that lies at its heart - Banksy meets Borat, if you like. Even taken at face value, however, this is worth a look, as it is first and foremost a celebration of the work of many unsung street artists, those creatures who ply their trade under cloak of darkness, producing works that go way beyond common or garden tagging to include stencils and even large installations.

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Banksy - in silhouette, no blowing of cover here - explains in his masked but distinctive Bristolian brogue how he came to be involved with this documentary. He says it all came down to a chance meeting with a Frenchman, Thierry Guetta, an eccentric vintage clothing shop owner who became obsessed with capturing anything and everything on video camera. This led to him going out one night to record the work of his cousin - street artist Space Invader (previously seen in documentary Bomb It).

Thierry gradually becomes addicted to this peculiar form of art acquisition, spending his nights on the rooftops of cities round the world, recording these notoriously camera-shy artists' work for posterity and becoming obsessed with the idea of meeting the most secretive creator of them all - Banksy. When a stroke of luck puts him in the right place at the right time to meet the man himself, an even bigger piece of good fortune sees Banksy agree to be caught on camera (from behind, no distinguishing features) as he goes about his work.

But after months and months of recording, Banksy tells us, he finally got a look at the documentary Thierry is making, only to discover that the Frenchman is - despite his enthusiasm - a dreadful director. He had edited together a montage of clips suitable only for those with attention deficit. This revelation led Banksy to step in and take the reins... but just as Banksy is turning director, his would-be documenter is aspiring to art - under the name Mr Brainwash - and using Banksy's name as leverage to cause an overnight sensation in LA.

Is any of this backstory true? I, for one, doubt it - although Mr Brainwash is certainly a creation of Banksy's, just possibly in a more literal sense than might first appear. But the cooing fans, who need little encouragement save a publicity campaign to attend Mr Brainwash's debut show, seem to neither know nor care how he came to be where he is. Certainly those who attend appear to have 'bought' the story and the resultant artwork, little realising that Mr Brainwash himself may well be a very clever piece of performance art.

This idea of art being an uneasy bedfellow of commerce - also explored quite extensively in Mark Kostabi documentary Con Artist - is not a new one, though this documentary, if it is a 'fake', certainly adds a new twist to the old argument. But just as something may be gained by this sort of rebellious approach, you can't help but feel something is lost. There are plenty of laughs to be had and the early scenes of artists at work are eye-opening, but the unruly, freewheeling nature of the 'story' means that the film ultimately loses its focus.

Rhys Ifans, too, although he may sound like the ideal narrator, proves to be a poor choice, since his voiceover lacks the energy so abundant elsewhere in the film. The punchline about how celebrity is somehow an endorsement of talent is a good one... but the shaggy dog story it takes to reach it is somewhat overlong.

Reviewed on: 04 Mar 2010
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A documentary about a French shopkeeper who tracked down the famous graffiti artist Banksy... or a very clever piece of performance art.
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Director: Banksy

Starring: Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Rhys Ifans, Space Invader

Year: 2010

Runtime: 87 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: US, UK


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