Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)

18 February 2011

Guest review: Srini S. is based in India.

Through this documentary, Banksy unravels the story behind the meteoric rise of Thierry Guetta, a Los Angeles boutique owner who became an overnight success in the art world. For those of you unfamiliar with the world of street art,
Banksy is the pseudonym of an acclaimed graffiti artist whose real identity is a closely guarded secret. This is his first film.
Like the documentary The King of Kong (2007) , Exit Through the Gift Shop shows us a rare glimpse of the people involved in a cultural phenomenon that is little known to general public. We see graffiti in most cities around the world, but the artists (are they vandals? - more on that later) who create them are largely anonymous. However, the film fails to provide us any deeper understanding of the movement itself and contents itself with the politics involving a few individuals (mainly Banksy and Thierry Guetta). Despite what one might expect from a film like this (coming from no less than an acclaimed artist like Banksy), the focus is mostly on setting the records straight (reminds me again of The King of Kong) on who rightfully deserves the glory.

There are several interesting questions waiting to be answered. To start with, what are the subjects that graffiti artists have been dealing with mainly and have they succeeded in their goals? Are there any recurring themes and how do they explain the social conditions that give rise to such expressions? With graffiti being treated as vandalism almost universally by governments, what unique social role does this movement play? The film does not address these type of questions. However, some observations in the film are very insightful. For example, the mindless consumption of hype by art-enthusiasts and art-collectors is revealing of the prevailing art-culture and the economic factors influencing such trends. The insane amount of money that people are willing to part with in exchange of what they consider to be the next cool thing in art is both amusing and sad to watch.

Whatever be the thematic merit of this documentary, it is certainly a well made film. Voice-over narration is employed to gradually build the Thierry Guetta story in conjunction with interviews of several people involved, including Guetta's wife. Lots of footage of the making of posters and stencils and the actual acts of artists working stealthily on public walls are very interesting to watch. Had the film concentrated more on the art and the craft of graffiti and less on specific individuals, it would have been a much more illuminating work.