Exit Through the Gift Shop does not divulge the secret identity of the infamous street artist Banksy, but it is the most candid representation of the artist that you are likely to see … unless he ever gets nabbed by the police. The film began as a project by Thierry Guetta, and was inspired initially by Guetta’s cousin, Invader, another well-known street artist. Guetta followed Invader wherever he went, chronicling late-night forays into metropolitan cities for the sole purpose of creating graffiti. The more Guetta tagged along, the more graffiti artists he was able to capture on film. Guetta amassed a voluminous library of footage that includes some of the biggest names in the world of street art. Early on, the only person Guetta was missing was Banksy, and Guetta made meeting and capturing Banksy an obsessive goal.
Eventually, fate brings Guetta and Banksy together, and the film has several moments that show Banksy (his face always hidden, and his voice distorted for the sake of anonymity) at work on his art. There is some wonderful footage, including Banksy’s remarkable work on the West Bank barrier, an enlightening look into his art space and an exhilarating recording of his September 2006 headline-making stunt at the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad ride at Disneyland theme park in Anaheim, Calif. The stunt not only made headlines, but was also all over the evening news. Banksy, an anti-war advocate had dressed an inflatable doll as a Guantanamo Bay prisoner and hoisted it just outside of the popular ride.
Interestingly, Exit Through the Gift Shop stops being so much about Banksy and his work, and instead the cameras turn onto the filmmaker, Guetta, and his overnight fame as an artist. We get to watch as Guetta gives himself a new name, Mr. Brainwash, and holds an immense art show in Los Angeles.
Guetta proves to be as interesting a subject as the much more widely known Banksy. Interviews in the film mention more than once that Mr. Brainwash, a.k.a. Thierry Guetta, may be a little crazy, and footage of Guetta doesn’t really disprove any of those notions. He is obsessive-compulsive and most likely he suffers from Attention Deficit Disorder. Without any real direction in his own work, Guetta co-opts the styles and talents of all the artists he has spent years filming, aping the style of everyone from Banksy to Shepard Fairey and even his own cousin, Invader. There is a sense that Mr. Brainwash’s work and meteoric rise to fame is rather disingenuous.
Exit Through the Gift Shop is an incredibly entertaining documentary, at once a proper look at the beginnings of the street art phenomenon as well as a bitingly humorous psychological portrait of Thierry Guetta.