What are we Watching, and Does it Matter? I'm Still Here and Exit Through the Gift Shop
by Rick Wallace
There’s an amusing moment about a third of the way into the ‘documentary’ film Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) when a Banksy creation - an overturned and mangled red telephone box - is critiqued, on camera, by various members of the public. One passer-by identifies it as a Banksy piece straight away, a second thinks it might be a Banksy but isn’t sure, whilst a third interprets the piece more literally, suggesting, quite logically, that the twisted sculpture simply signifies that “someone is annoyed with BT telephones...”
Were Exit Through the Gift Shop a ‘normal’ documentary (a problematic category, but let’s say that such a thing might include an assumption of openness about source material) we could take several things from these three reactions. (1) That the first reviewer recognises the phone box is not a real phone box but a work of street art by notable British (graffiti) artist Banksy. (2) That the second reviewer likewise recognises the contrived nature of the scene but is not equipped with the specialist knowledge required to be sure of the piece’s provenance. And (3) that the third reviewer fails even to recognise that the phone box is not actually a phone box at all. However, the film is anything but a ‘standard’ documentary and as it unfolds, doubts begin to creep in about almost every aspect of what we are seeing and being told.
The premise of the film - stated openly at the film’s outset by a hooded figure with a distorted voice whom we are told is Banksy himself - is that French filmmaker Thierry Guetta’s attempts to make a documentary about Banksy are thwarted, due to the fact that the artist finds the filmmaker’s life to be more interesting than his own. As a result, the final film Exit Through the Gift Shop (released without ‘Director’ credits) is as much about Guetta’s life as a film-maker, documenting the birth of the street-art movement, as it is about Banksy himself. At least that’s the suggestion.
However, throughout the film an increasing uncertainty hangs over proceedings as we begin to question the reality of Guetta as both a filmmaker and, later, as an artist himself. Indeed we might even begin to suspect that ‘Guetta’ the artist does not actually exist at all and that Banksy may be the perpetrator of an elaborate hoax. Is Banksy responsible for Guetta’s art? Indeed, is Guetta actually Banksy? Upon reviewing the film in this context, the three reactions to the phone box begin to take on significantly more layers of meaning. Are these honest reactions by real members of the public or staged and scripted responses; the line about someone being very angry about BT seems almost too good a sound bite/review to be true. Are they a deliberate comment on the value of art, with the critic who recognises the box as a Banksy piece valuing it more highly than the one who sees it only as scrap metal? Are these responses also representative of the various positions an audience could take in relation to the film itself: either it is a Banksy fabrication, a mockumentary, disguised as the real thing; or it is a genuinely truthful documentary that can be taken at face value; or it is something between, leaving us unsure of how much of what we are seeing is footage of what really happened and therefore ‘truthful’. In some ways these three stances mirror the viewer’s journey through the film, initially watching it as a straight documentary about Banksy before coming to suspect that the film might actually be a Banksy.
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