Let me be the first to admit that I am a picky bastard when it comes to documentary film. As is the case with anything cinematic, a documentary for me needs to be just as focused on entertainment as it is on information. It also needs to be about something relevant, clearly that relevancy needs to be in a realm that I have a pre-existing interest, and if not then the content needs to be motivational in delving into study of the content of the documentary. While some may clamor for unbiased reports on whatever the subject matter is that's presented, I admittedly prefer a more personal approach with topics or people of a disposition that I might be able to level with.
Films like Murderball for the unapologetic lean toward empathy and inspiration based on real people some may not find so likable doing amazing things in wheelchairs. Going to Pieces for it's unflinching look at the origination of the slasher film, something in which a predilection for is basically required in order to really wrap your head around the context of the film, as well as appreciate the minute details given candidly and wittily. And of course, what film lover wouldn't seek to include This Film Is Not Yet Rated, an explosive statement against the MPAA, looking deeper into the practices and politics of the American film industry's big brother, jackboots and all. Well add Exit Through the Gift Shop to this list, something wholly interesting, subversive, and affecting that's been on my radar since I missed it at SIFF.
Initially conceived as a documentary about street art, with camera wielded by Thierry Guetta (aka Mister Brainwash), an obsessive compulsive who's always filming and has a den with thousands of tapes in tupperware tubs, looking like an organized version of something you might see on Hoarders. Thierry is French, and immigrated to the US back in the 80's, when he settled down in Los Angeles and opened a vintage clothing boutique making buckets of cash on worthless clothes sold to the Hollywood elite. Lacking a muse, his films were aimless and rambling until he visited his cousin back in France (Space Invader) and began following him on bombing runs through the streets of Paris late at night. Only rather than pointless tagging, putting up actual art with a disposition of street meets 80's arcade culture meets art deco. Or something like that. From that point, Thierry becomes obsessed with street art, seeking out any new artist that he can while in France, then resuming his search back in LA.
Ultimately meeting Shepard Fairey, the original perpetrator of the Obey stickers and murals, and ultimately the clothing line, who inadvertently and unknowingly unleashes another obsession for Thierry, that of meeting Banksy. Street artist accidentally turned millionaire by a joke art exhibit in the ghetto warehouse district of Los Angeles, after his work saw light due to conflicts with Israeli troops for defacing several spots of the Left Bank wall. Banksy's work is easily recognizable and hilariously anti-establishment, and the man himself remains something of an enigma, even after meeting Thierry.
While the film was meant to be about street art in general with more specific focus on the work of well-knowns such as Fairey and Banksy, it turns out that Thierry is not really a good director. After scouring thousands of hours of footage, his end result is a manic insane hybrid of bombing trailers, asinine buzz words, and crazy fast forwarded footage of people on the street. That's the point the movie becomes more about Thierry, since he's clearly crazy and has a story to tell himself, Banksy more or less dupes him into diving headlong into the thing Thierry has been most obsessed with, street art.
The joy in watching this film is in seeing how it twists on its axis to become about something different than it originally began as. Thierry is infinitely interesting. He's a character, quirky and odd, even cartoonish in his obsessions and belief that he can go from unknown to a recognized force in the art world. The man just did the cover for Madonna's greatest hits album, and I'm still not sure whether he's for real or not based on the footage of the film, he's more crazy than anything else. Nothing he does really makes any sense, and his work has no theme tying it together making it his own. Instead it's a hybrid of Warhol meets Banksy cum Brandon Bird. It's fun and kitschy but fails to make a statement, though Thierry believes what he's put together is honest and forthright making the scenes that much more compelling.
Banksy on the other hand, plays his role on the sly. With hoodie masking his face and modulator masking his voice, he's witty and candid and also derisive of his fellow artists, though his stature allows for some flamage thrown at the others in this niche art category. Being one of the most recognized street artists out there, and shrugging off the label of graffiti with ease, he's also amazingly humble and seems genuinely confused by his own celebrity. As well, Shepard Fairey is a great persona to watch on the screen. Admitting to becoming friends with Thierry and basically tutoring him in the art of his, well, art he's less prone to shrug off his fame and definitely not camera shy, ultimately left to ponder whether he should have taken the time with the focus of the film, Thierry Guetta, at all or if he'd been better left to his devices, filming for no purpose.
Many people have been turned off to this film, mistaking it as a documentary solely about Banksy, when in reality it's a film about the documentarian. The content contained within is a wealth of lore and knowledge of street art, from obscure up and comers, to genuine talent and to the immediate pursuit of artistic infamy by Thierry. It's limitlessly fascinating and a topic that I've been interested in sometime, though never had a real grasp of what was actually out there. This film won't necessarily answer all of your questions, but as a compendium of what true street art is about, in legitimate and ill-conceived states throughout, it serves it's purpose phenomenally.