From Street to Scrap: Exit Through the Gift Shop, Waste Land

FILM, Film Festivals

Appropriation rules in two daring art documentaries.

Banksy is one of contemporary art’s great provocateurs, and Exit Through the Gift Shop may go down as one of the street artist’s most infamous pranks. The film is ostensibly about Thierry Guetta, a transplanted Frenchman in Los Angeles who began documenting street art before trying to snag Banksy on tape. However, in the aftermath the film’s veracity has being questioned: does Thierry (aka Mr Brainwash) exist, or is he an elaborate ruse masterminded by Banksy over the last decade? Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is a resoundingly cynical critique of auteurism, authenticity, art collectors, and hype. It also captures the way movements and scenes can easily mutate from counterculture to commodity.

The documentary initially sets Banksy up as the protagonist, although like his art, he’s intent on remaining anonymous, and takes control of the production when he realises that Guetta isn’t up to the task. Through this, intervention Banksy gives us a portrait of an artist who’s a dilettante, one who unashamedly copies his street art peers, and one who has done well economically in the process. That story in itself is a scathing critique of second wave artists: those who copy their heroes but manage to achieve arguably greater fame or financial rewards, and a world which sustains, and is built off, these kind of faux innovators.

But if Exit Through the Gift Shop is indeed fabricated—as many reports tend to suggest it is—this only suggests that Banksy has been playing the art world over the last few years, which in turn sharpens the film’s bite. Heavily visited exhibitions, auction house interest, and media coverage of Guetta all reveal an interdependent world sucked in by Banksy’s hoax. There are other pleasures too: the film is incredibly funny, and pays homage to some of the earlier examples of street art; fascinating, as the work is an especially ephemeral type of art. The tease between genuine and fake remains at the heart of Exit Through the Gift Shop though, a witty and dark provocation.

Waste Land isn’t quite the visual representation of TS Eliot’s famous poem that the name would suggest, but its depiction of an anarchic and dissonant society seems to be referencing Eliot all the same. Director Lucy Walker (Devil’s Playground, Blindsight) ostensibly documents acclaimed Brazilian photographer Vik Muniz returning to Brazil to shoot his latest project: the employees of Rio de Janeiro’s main rubbish dump, Jardim Gramacho. Muniz is famous in the art world for constructing images through society’s waste, and his latest project features human subjects recreating iconic paintings out of salvaged garbage.

Muniz’s collaborators form the backbone of the film. Landfill workers—or ‘catadores’—sift through rubbish, keeping what can be recycled. It’s dangerous, dirty, and disrespected work, but they find their own ways of coping with it. Paintings are not only reproduced, but the workers become the art itself—a union leader stands in for David in The Death of Marat, another worker and her kids substitute for the Virgin Mary and child, and so on.

Waste Land, however, is a film uncertain of whether it’s a visual representation of Muniz’s project, or a documentary on Muniz’s subjects. Muniz remains too much of an enigma as a result, while the subjects’ individual stories feel awkwardly placed at times within the overall narrative. Still, this lack of focus through the middle stretch is rectified by an ending which brings the film’s disparate threads nicely together—scenes of workers experiencing the art they’ve helped make and become a part a particularly touching moment.

Walker reproduces some striking images of discarded waste, wringing poetry out of the stark topography despite the cascading rubbish and sheer scope of the landfill being absolutely frightening. In one poignant instance, she even captures lilacs growing out of the dead landscape. She also manages something that Muniz isn’t able to achieve with his otherwise brilliant imagery: humanise her subjects.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’, Dir. Banksy
USA/UK, 2010; 86 minutes
In English and French, with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington (Christchurch, Dunedin TBC).
‘Waste Land’, Dir. Lucy Walker
UK/Brazil, 2010; 98 minutes
In English and Portuguese, with English subtitles
Screening: Auckland, Wellington (Christchurch, Dunedin TBC). For New Zealand International Film Festival dates, programme details, and screenings in other regions, visit nzff.co.nz.