Street art has been a rapidly growing movement in the last 20 years. The idea is to utilize public spaces for artful expression. Street artists push the boundaries of graffiti to new heights by not using spray paint to "tag" an alias on a hard to reach place, they instead display pieces of various mediums intended to evoke a reaction out of the common passerby. Many themes have been explored through street art, however the movement is most effective and controversial when pieces carry a social commentary.
I personally know very little about street art. I have heard of "Bansky" and have seen some of his more prolific work (only through a computer or television screen, of course). When the documentary was announced I wasn't as excited as say Tom was, and I doubted very much if I would ever see this film. On a whim I decided to head down to the Toronto Underground Cinema to check out something on celluloid, I originally intended to catch an Australian neo-noir called The Square but arrived too late for the screening. Instead of biking home defeated I decided to stick around and check out Exit Through the Gift Shop, which was highly recommended by one of the managers of Toronto Underground Cinema; Alex Woodside. Thank the film Gods I stayed because Exit turned out to be (and pardon me if this comes across as hyperbole) one of the best documentaries I have ever had the pleasure of viewing and not only that but it was also one of the best movie-going experiences I ever had.
It's a film that is impossible to talk about if you haven't seen it. I can tell you the basic plot that is revealed simply by looking up a listing or reading the back of the DVD box when it eventually hits our shelves (hopefully! Looks like a September release.). The film starts with footage captured by a French man named Thierry Guetta who lives in California and owns a vintage clothing shop. Once he acquires his first video camera he quickly discovers a new obsession with recording his everyday life. He brings his camera everywhere recording mundane and unspectacular events such as brushing his teeth and using public restrooms. Through his obsessive lens he makes a chance discovery while visiting his family in France. He walks upon a cousin of his creating "street art" in his basement. His cousin is about to become the famous street artist "Space Invader" and Theirry is about to film him do it. Our cameraman becomes very interested in Street Art and meets other big names in the movement through his cousin, the artists all come to trust Thierry while he films them under the belief that he is a filmmaker who is making the definitive Street Art documentary.
Along this journey Thierry realizes that there is one important street artist that has eluded his camera; Banksy. Banksy is the most mysterious and prolific of all street artists, his pieces have made major headlines countless times with controversial works such as placing his own artwork among the collections of various New York art museums and painting various images on the Israeli West Bank Barrier. Like a child rounding out his baseball card collection Thierry seeks out Banksy, only problem is no one knows who Banksy is or how to get in contact with him.
Lady luck smiles upon Theirry and brings the two together, however, when they finally meet Banksy decides to flip the camera on the cameraman and the film takes a turn.
Exit Through the Gift Shop much like the Street Art movement itself breaks as many conventions as it possibly can and pushes the idea of what a documentary is and can be. The film follows many themes and never stays in one place long enough to put your finger on what exactly it is. For awhile it feels a lot like a skateboarding video going from artist to artist showing them in the act of creating their works, then it plays like an introspection of self and where our drives and dreams can take us, and then it turns into a film about the disenchantment of modern art. The film is continuously taking on new forms until finally your mind is blown.
Perhaps my feelings on this film are more rooted within my overall viewing experience than I would like to admit. This was my first time watching a film at Toronto Underground Cinema, I sat alone in the spacious theater. The movie-house was filled with other like minded viewers who were guffawing, yelling and applauding at the same moments I was. When the lights came back on I shook my head like a dog in the rain trying to get free of the spell the film had me under. I walked out with the rest of the procession amidst others who were smiling and talking vigorously of what they had just witnessed. When I reached the lobby Alex asked if I had enjoyed the film and he could tell just by the look on my face that I had. He then led me across the street from the theater and pointed to a space on a brick wall on the side of a building and said "check it out". There painted among the brick was a bona fide piece from Banksy. The Toronto night seemed to expand in depth and meaning in the moments I stared upon the painted rat. The film I just walked out of had just entered my real world, it had just reached out of the screen and appeared physically in front of me. Alex and I then went for beer and talked about the film and street art for the rest of the night.
I hope that my enthusiasm for this film doesn't make anyone approach this film with skepticism or raised expectations. Like Banksy himself says in the opening shot of the doc "It's not Gone With the Wind, but there's probably a morale in there someplace." This film somehow displayed both the best and worst aspects of art. It's riotously funny, informative, completely engaging and a mind fuck all in one.