Exit through the Gift Shop: (Guetta) via Banksy, not (Banksy) via Guetta
Exit Through the Gift Shop initially presents itself as a straightforward documentary about street artist Banksy, narrated and shot by a Frenchman named Thierry Guetta. Guetta is a compulsive filmer, traveling everywhere with his handheld video recorder. He turns his camera to the highly secretive world of street art, and captures extensive footage of the artists in action. He also begins his own experiments in steet art. He accrues hours upon hours of footage, and then realizes he does not know what to do with this footage. Banksy eventually realizes that Guetta is no filmmaker, but is an interesting subject to be filmed. The documentary’s subject then becomes Guetta, narrated by Banksy, still filmed in part by Guetta but also by other observers. The narrative inversion coupled with the representation of the two subjects, or perhaps 3 subjects (Banksy, Guetta, and street art) is the focus of my investigation, specifically how the film plays with the concept of reality, and why audiences reportedly felt ‘duped’ by the film.
The on-screen portrayal of the subjects is a good place to begin. We are introduced to Guetta and his family in their California home almost immediately, via Guetta’s footage. Guetta immediately is a very human presence, we see him playing with his kids, working at his shop, talking to his wife, and other mundane tasks of life. The effect is increased by the fact that he is the one holding the camera, controlling our perception of his subjects, surroundings, and life. However, at this point Guetta is both subject and non-subject; he appears on screen as an errant thumb in the camera lens or when he deliberately turns the camera on himself.
Bansky’s onscreen presence almost negates Guetta’s doubly represented self. His scenes are shot in a small, black room. His face is pixilated, no skin is visible, and his voice is almost laughably altered. The strong filters are purportedly to hide Banksy’s identity for security reasons, for most of his work in Britain is actually illegal. However, the strong filters and the fact that Banksy only appears on screen in that room, not ‘in action’, makes the viewer wonder, is this even Banksy?
Exit’s trailer bills itself as the world’s first ‘street art disaster movie.’ The third and uniting subject of the film, street art, is the medium in which questions of reality, representation and authenticity raised by the human subjects can be examined. Guettas first glimpse of street art occurs of course through his camera when he stumbles upon one of his relatives creating templates to be pasted around Paris. Guetta’s relative is constructing an interactive, ‘real life’ game of Space Invader by posting his templates on different elements of Paris’ built environment. The transformation of Space Invader from the computer screen to the city exhibits the ‘realness’ of street art, as playing the game now demands involvement from the physical world and corporeal body to play.
Guetta is absolutely captivated by street art, and begins to follow his relative on twilight posting expeditions around the city, in the process meeting many other street artists, including Banksy, under the implied charge that he with the camera was a documentary filmmaker. Guetta spends the next few years following and yes, filming the previously unseen mechanics of street art, compiling an impressive archive of footage. He then attempts to make his documentary, and produces a questionable result. Banksy realizes that Guetta is no documentary filmmaker, and turns the camera on Guetta’s attempts to be a street artist.
Guetta’s inability to synthesize his footage in a documentary form could be attributed simply to him being a terrible filmmaker, but I see his work as an autobiography. The filmmakers were dissatisfied with his portrayal of them and their work, a common complaint of those included in memoirs and autobiographies. Guetta’s film is his reality, and served as his memory, as a diary would for some. However, because of Guetta’s reading of his film as both reality and memory, he was unable to edit it into a story about others, because all he saw in it was himself. David Shields’ argument that ‘every documentary film, even – especially – the least self referential, demonstrates in its every frame that an artists chief material is himself’ (Reality Hunger, 153) is telling of Guetta’s struggle. His attempted documentary was in no way supposed to be about him, but his life is the footage, and the construction of the film using the footage, was a film of his life.
Banksy at this point in the flim realizes that Guetta’s story is perhaps more interesting than his own, and beigns to film Guetta’s efforts at street art. However, Guetta, going by the moniker “Mr. Brainwash,” simply takes street art or other commercial art he’s seen and changes it just enough to call it his own. Other street artists, including the ones he filmed, regard the work as unoriginal, un‘true’, and un-‘real.’ Street art is a philosophy, a lifestyle, a way of looking at the world – and Guetta’s street art was an object of no true value.
Interestingly enough, Guetta’s street art show, modeled to be better and more spectacular than any street art show ever was, attracted the most commercial attention and mainstream acclaim of any street artist’s show. This further proves the base commerciality of Guetta’s work, the un ‘real’-ness and betrayal of the form and philosophy.
Nearly all audiences and reviewers reported feeling duped or fooled in some way, with the New York Times calling Exit a “prankumentary.” I believe the audiences felt duped because they were expecting a straightforward, narrative documentary about the elusive Banksy and his street art. One review recommended readers ‘don’t think about the film, just enjoy it.’ However, when one does consider the questions posed about the nature of reality and relationships between the subjects Guetta, Banksy, and street art, it might help to have Shields in the back of your mind. Consider that documentary work is playing with someone else’s life and shaping it to fit the story you want to put forth, as Shields says, “part of what I enjoy in documentary is the sense of banditry. To loot someone else’s life or sentences and make off with a point of view, which is called objective because one can make anything into an object by treating it this way, is exciting and dangerous. Let us see who controls the danger.” Guetta attempted to do so with Banksy, but in the eyes of his subjects failed. Banksy did in fact ‘loot’ his effort, his footage, his life to put forth Exit, which above all is ultimately a meditation on reality, perception, and art.