Even before the opening credits rolled it was clear that Banksy was not going to reveal his identity as he’d sent a missive apologising for not being at the world premiere of his directorial debut while also requesting that people “Don’t give away the ending on Twitter” or “Try to emulate anything they see at home, wait until you get to work”.
Banksy, famous for his subversive humour, brings this sense of mischief to his documentary on street art. The story of street art is told in a tongue-in-cheek tone that makes it hard to tell whether what we are watching is actually real or fake. In the end his directorial debut is as much about questions of identity, authenticity and authorship then it is about the evolution of street art.
The jokes start from the very aptly named “Paranoid Pictures” production logo. The first scene makes it clear that the artist’s identity will remain secret as a silhouetted Banksy enters the frame with a grey hoody top covering his face and when he talks his voice is scrambled. In his opening salvo he introduces the character that is going to lead our voyage through street art, Theiry Guetta.
A voice over narration by British actor Rhys Ifans tells a potted history of how Thierry Guetta became fascinated with street art. The movie claims that in 1999 this flamboyant LA vintage clothes shop owner went on a trip to France and discovered that his cousin was the street artist Space Invader. He then decided to start filming his cousin at work.
Returning to LA, Guetta tells people he is making a documentary on street art. He becomes the sidekick of Shepher Fairey, the artist who gained fame for his Obey Giant sticker series and would later design the multicoloured “Obama Hope” poster which popped up everywhere during the last US election. As time goes by Guetta meets streets artists with names like Borf, Neckface and Buffmonster and in a history of street art is relayed in an entertaining style. But questions of authenticity arise as much of the footage shown of the street artists could have been shot by anyone.
Guetta becomes frustrated when the only artist he cannot film is Banksy. No one knows who Banksy is, or where to find him, until in 2006 Guetta receives a call from Fairey saying that Banksy needed his help to find walls to paint on in LA.
Fascinatingly there’s finally footage shown of Banksy, face digitally obscured, at work. One sequence also shows the artist putting the now infamous Guantanamo dolly into Disneyland. It’s a daring escapade that’s recounted with style and wit.
Trailer: 'Exit Through the Gift Shop'
The set-up of the film, with Guetta behind the camera, or at least supposedly so, allows Banksy to make Guetta rather than himself the enigma of the movie. His French accent is so thick it reeks of garlic. He says things like, “I’m playing chess, I don’t know how to play chess, life is a chess game”. He’s a larger than life character who could easily seem fictional, if it were not for the fact that, as the film documents, Guetta himself came to prominence as a street artist in his own right in 2008 with a debut show under the moniker Mr Brainwash.
All that is known about Guetta is contained in an LA Weekly article about that show. Guetta appeared from nowhere and it’s here that it seems likely that this show, which always seemed suspect due to the number of pieces, was simply part of the grand plan to make this film.The article states: “Banksy is threatening to do a movie about the documentary [on street art] that Guetta never made”.
The big joke of the film is that Guetta doesn’t actually know how to make a movie. When Banksy finally persuades him to cut together his footage, he makes an unseen film, Life Remote Control, that’s so bad that Banksy is forced to become filmmaker. Speaking to camera Banksy reveals that his desire to do so is in response to accusations of selling-out that accompanied the rise in value of his work, when in fact he pleads it really was always about the art.
One thing that is for sure in this movie that poses more questions than it answers is that Banksy proves that his talents extend beyond the spray can to the movie camera.