Is it a documentary, or is it a farce? Does it matter? Exit Through the Gift Shop, directed by notoriously reclusive street artist Banksy, follows the near-overnight ascent of a Frenchman from eccentric amateur filmmaker to popular (and rich) artist. The question of whether it's real is outweighed by the fact that it is one of the best "documentaries" of the year.
Going into the movie, I knew nothing about the controversy around its validity and very little about the artist Banksy, other than that he does street art and did the unicorn sweatshop opening for "The Simpsons" last year. So, I took the movie at face value.
As a documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an interesting and consistently funny examination of Thierry Guetta, an amateur French filmmaker who becomes obsessed with street artists. He begins to follow several artists around and document them. He soon learns of Banksy, the most well known albeit notoriously guarded street artist, and they become friends.
Unknown to the artists, Guetta isn't actually a filmmaker. He captures footage but otherwise has no idea what to do with it. In hindsight, several of the artists, including Banksy, suspect that he has mental problems.
Having participated in the street art scene for so long, Guetta then becomes convinced that he can become an artist just like Banksy. The rest of the movie explores his attempts to become a major, innovative and profitable artist, despite having no political, social or other artistic motions whatsoever.
Simply put, Exit Through the Gift Shop is amazingly entertaining. The film features several revelations about Guetta that repeatedly send it down a new path. Each revelation is stranger than the first; Guetta is one of the most intriguing characters captured in a documentary in quite some time.
Of course, that may be because he doesn't actually exist. And in hindsight, it's quite possible that he does not. The movie is directed by Banksy; the thought that he would concoct something as complex as this to outline how the masses can be manipulated by pop culture hype fits within his archetype.
Some even suggest the title of the movie itself alludes to it being a farce.
Still, if Exit Through the Gift Shop is fake, that Guetta isn't real and that everything is a put-on, it's hard to imagine. The movie is too absurd, too intricately detailed to be made up. Again, while watching the movie, it never crossed my mind that the picture was fake.
Whether it's real or not doesn't matter, though. In fact, it only adds to the mystique of Thierry Guetta and Banksy. Exit Through the Gift Shop is entertaining, amusing and rich; its controversy just adds flavor.
Review by Erik Samdahl unless otherwise indicated.
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