Ever since its dubious premiere at Sundance earlier this year, Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop has exploded with discussion about its validity. Is it a real documentary, or is it staged? Is Banksy one person, or a collective? Is Thierry Guetta, the film’s pudgy protagonist, a diehard street art sidekick or a figment of Banksy’s twisted imagination? The truth is that it doesn’t really matter all that much either way. It’s a solid documentary whose mysterious existence only add to the fun.
For those who don’t know, Banksy is an irreverent street artist whose work has been celebrated (and in some cases, reviled) the world over. From graffiti stencils to off-the-wall sculptures to painted elephants, there is basically nothing that he won’t try. Add to that list filmmaking, or so we assume. Though Exit has a clear and proper title, in discussion most people will refer to it as “the Banksy film”, which is interesting because his credit reads, somewhat nebulously, “A Banksy Film”. That he appears on camera early on, be-shrouded and his voice modulated, as more of a subject than an auteur is our first sign that something may be amiss.
Banksy tells us that this is a film about Thierry, a Los Angeles Frenchman who had the nasty habit of filming everything around him. The story goes that once Thierry started filming his cousin the artist known as Invader, he began earning his stripes enough to be considered something of a documentarian even though he never had anything to show for all of his adventures. After an awful cut of his supposed documentary is shown to Banksy, the artist asks to take a crack at cutting the footage together into something workable. The film we see, supposedly, is the result of that handoff.
Thierry goes on to host his own art show as Mister Brainwash, an invented persona. It is a wild success even though his work is basically stolen from Banksy, Warhol and other artists. The public, high on hype, didn’t seem to care as Thierry sold over a million dollars worth of art when the show opened. Overnight, he became a success in the public’s eye, a fact which Banksy apologizes for unleashing on the world.
But is it real? If it isn’t, then the lengths that many people had to go to to pull this off were extraordinary. The truth is that the more we speculate on the validity of the film, the more valid it becomes. If it is a hoax, then it is a very real and very clever hoax that would outpace anything Andy Kaufman ever attempted. Banksy’s street art has the ability to make the ordinary extraordinary. A telephone booth becomes a lounging character in his world; so too does this widely released film become an interactive piece that promotes involved discussion when the audience goes home.
If we take all of that away, however, and assume that it is all a true tale, then it is in fact a very ordinary documentary. It has sit-down interviews, cheeky narration from the actor, Rhys Ifans, and a catchy soundtrack that audiences of all ages should be able to enjoy. There aren’t too many chances being taken here cinematically, but I can understand why. Street art, by its very nature, is accessible; you have no choice but to encounter it. By making an accessible film, Banksy will be able to get most audiences to jibe with his narrative before flipping the story over on them. By the time the “what is art?” question comes up, you have grown so close to Thierry that you feel almost betrayed when he becomes a hack. It is very slick the way in which the wool is pulled over our eyes.
Or else it is all fake. Which means it isn’t even a documentary. What are documentaries? And around we go.