Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010): United States/United Kingdom – directed by Banksy
Rated R by the MPAA – contains a little strong language
I’m not sure any of Exit Through the Gift Shop is real. There’s a very good chance it occupies a strange place between the obvious prankery of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and the self-purported veracity of films like Paranormal Activity [review here]. It at first presents itself as an entirely possible documentary about a strange obsessive person, but then blossoms into something so much more that it is likely to be a mixture of performance art and hoax. If you would rather know nothing about the film, please stop reading, as I will discuss much of it in detail. The film is worth seeing, as it is one of the most intriguing films of 2010.
Thierry Guetta (if there is such a person), is an obsessive videographer. After an early childhood trauma he began to videotape every aspect of his life, documenting every minor detail. He is married, with children, and runs a boutique clothing store in Los Angeles. He buys bales of clothing with odd designer’s names on them, for $50, then sells each article for $400. He is able to make $50,000 off of one bale. This is entirely plausible, particularly in L.A.
He tapes his wife, his kids, and celebrities. He is French, and one day visits a cousin in France. His cousin, whose face is always blurred, is a street artist known as Space Invader. He tags buildings and other public places with an image of a space invader, and is well-known in the underground street art world. Thierry soon starts to tape his outings, and eventually gets drawn into the lifestyle of graffiti artists around the world.
He gets to know Shepard Fairey, known in the underground world for his “Obey” artwork, and better known in the mainstream for his “Hope” poster, an altered image of the soon-to-be President Barack Obama. Thierry follows Shepard around, benignly, and even helps out in Shepard’s evening runs. Thierry realizes he must have a reason to continue taping these people, and tells them he is making a documentary. They let him be, documenting their often-ephemeral artwork.
Thierry soon has followed most of the famous street artists, but one eludes him: Banksy, the world’s most elusive, mysterious, and renowned street artist. Then, by chance, Banksy wanders into L.A. needing help scouting locations, and Shepard points him to Thierry. Soon Thierry follows Banksy around the world as he tags and provokes witless populaces. Eventually a sort of friendship blossoms.
But then the film takes a turn into the surreal, especially evident in a trip to Disneyland that culminates in an interrogation of Thierry after Banksy has placed a blow-up Guantanamo Bay inmate next to a roller coaster. At this point reality begins to stretch even more. But the most outrageous is yet to come, as Banksy finally brings up an important point: when will Thierry’s documentary be finished? The truth is, he has never done anything with his footage. He simply stores boxes and boxes of tapes, perhaps 10,000 hours. He is not a filmmaker. He’s been living a lie, and when Banksy finally presses him Thierry is forced to edit a 90 minute “documentary.” Banksy finds it almost unwatchable, but kindly suggests that Thierry start making his own art while he works through the tapes himself.
At this point the film becomes almost totally unbelievable, though no less fascinating, and never presented as anything other than fact. In fact, Roger Ebert believes the film is not a hoax precisely because the result is so enormous. I’m inclined to find the whole thing performance art culminating in a hoax on the art world. Thierry re-mortgages his business (which he has neglected for years, evidently) and starts to produce “art” on a mass scale. He is like a modern Andy Warhol, only with little originality. The art is the same as much street art, only produced as a commercial product, not as art. He hires designers to make it all, and stages a massive art show. Thierry, called “a retard” by a promoter brought in by Banksy, eventually pulls off a gigantic success, rocking the subversive art world.
It would be fabulous if Banksy, who is never shown on camera (and indeed his very identity is still a mystery), is in fact Thierry, staging himself as a pawn in a giant game of “fool the art world.” Or perhaps Banksy is someone else in the production, or perhaps he is Shepard Fairey or even the hooded, shadowed figure labeled in the film as “Banksy.” The film is credited as “A Banksy Film,” but no director is listed. In the end, the film itself is the mystery, and there are no readily apparent answers. This is precisely what makes the film so much fun.
There are other tips that indicate Thierry is not real, but a construct. His broken English is sometimes unrealistically bad (the show is “behind my expectations”), and there is such a large, sudden shift in his character that he appears unreal. Or maybe he is simply as neurotic as his early behavior indicates. Either way, there is no doubt that Exit Through the Gift Shop is one of the year’s most fascinating documentaries (or is it a prankumentary, or a mockumentary?).