By Julian Carrington

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Far and away the most fascinating of 2010’s crop of high-profile “prankumentaries” – and one of the year’s best in any genre – many critics found Exit Through the Gift Shop, from iconically anonymous street artist Banksy, literally too good to be true. A shockingly entertaining blend of humour, insight, coincidence and subversion, it’s been commonly suggested that, like Joaquin Phoenix hoax I’m Still Here, Gift Shop was an elaborate con, playfully but purposefully crafted to expose the absurdities of the commercial art scene.

After half a dozen viewings, I remain a believer, and if the film’s Best Documentary nomination is any indication, so does the Academy. That said, I appreciate the skepticism. Banksy, after all, is a professional trickster, renowned for audacious feats of artistic disobedience, and it’s prudent to approach with caution. Suspicion is also a fair response to the shadowy artist’s bait-and-switch introduction: Claiming to have turned the tables on his would-be documentarian (“he was actually a lot more interesting than I am”), Banksy surrenders the spotlight to a personality as comically improbable as any Sacha Baron Cohen alter ego.

That man is Thierry Guetta, a bumbling, lushly-mutonchopped, cartoonishly French L.A. expat, who, after arriving as a boy in the early 80s, became a surprisingly successful entrepreneur, importing second-hand streetwear at a tidy markup. Conveniently, Guetta also cultivated a near-clinical obsession with his video camera, capturing thousands of hours of candid footage of himself and his family, which, more conveniently still, happens to include one of street art’s original leading lights. Gift Shop, in turn, is the extraordinary story of what transpired when Guetta gained access to street art’s other prominent pioneers, and was allowed to train his obsessive gaze on their agitprop underworld.

Acting both as a videographer and an ever-willing accomplice, Guetta facilitated his new idols in their midnight raids, recording priceless footage of countercultural ephemera inherently at odds with commercial valuation. By 2006 he’d established a reputation as a veteran street art sidekick, and was at last introduced to Banksy himself, the only major player to have eluded his lens. It was as an accessory to the artist’s Guantanamo-themed Disneyland installation that Guetta would decisively prove his worth, stashing incriminating tapes and withstanding a four-hour interrogation from irony-averse authorities. Banksy adds that he was able to escape the park thanks partly to Guetta’s detention, and that thereafter he trusted the tight-lipped Frenchman completely.

Indeed, Exit Through the Gift Shop originated as Life Remote Control, a film Guetta cut together at Banksy’s behest. Concerned by street art’s sudden, lucrative cachet among private collectors – for which he was significantly, if inadvertently, responsible – Banksy asked Guetta to assemble his footage in the hope of publicizing the movement’s egalitarian, anti-establishment foundations. When Banksy was shown the torturously inept final product, however, that hope was replaced by concern for Guetta’s sanity. It was at this point that Banksy claims to have taken the filmmaking reins, and to have casually suggested that Guetta occupy himself by producing some art of his own.

The ensuing role reversal is astonishing (imagine F for Fake meets Face/Off), and must be seen to be believed – or disbelieved, as the case may be. This third act turnabout is the crux of Gift Shop conspiracy theories, such is its success in revealing the willingness of both the general public and alleged connoisseurs to embrace even the most vapid pop culture regurgitations, provided they’re heralded with sufficient hype. For skeptics, it’s difficult to believe that Banksy merely documented, rather than deliberately engineered, a sequence of events so ripe for satire.

Again, I accept Gift Shop as essentially genuine, but would only be more impressed if Banksy had premeditated such an intricate farce. On that understanding, he’s not only provided an account of the origins of a vibrant guerilla art form, which simultaneously lampoons efforts to commercialize that art form, but has done the former whilst duping the commercial art world into lampooning itself. Apart from its general sardonic brilliance, what makes Gift Shop so remarkable is that, whatever manipulations it might be peddling, as a cultural indictment it remains very much valid.

90/100 -  One of 2010′s best films, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a shockingly entertaining blend of humour, insight, coincidence and subversion.
Toronto Film Critic. A graduate of the University of Toronto's Faculty of Law, I haven't let my regrettable decision to drop Cinema Studies 101 deter me from becoming a pretentious, know-it-all film snob.