Once upon a time, in Los Angeles, French-born clothing-store proprietor Thierry Guetta picked up a video camera and began shooting everything and everyone around him. He pestered family members. He pestered celebrities, who couldn’t distinguish Guetta from a common paparazzo. Then one day, while visiting family in France, Guetta discovered that one of his cousins was the legendary street artist Space Invader, who was then gaining fame for the tiled mosaics he’d been installing surreptitiously in public spaces around Europe. Guetta, as was his wont, began videotaping Space Invader, and soon other graffiti artists, including Shepard Fairey and the mysterious British legend Banksy. Guetta claimed he was collecting all this footage for a documentary, but as the years rolled by, no documentary appeared, and Guetta’s friends began to wonder if he was more madman than filmmaker. Then again, what artist isn’t a little crazy?
Exit Through The Gift Shop is the result of Banksy’s attempts to wrestle with Guetta’s massive library of videotapes, and to make the documentary that Guetta couldn’t. The movie contains a lot of amazing footage of artists at work, and of their finished installations, most of which were removed or wiped away days later. Just as a permanent record of a remarkable artistic movement, Exit Through The Gift Shop is valuable. But there’s more going on here. In telling the story of Guetta’s obsessive behavior, Banksy delivers a surprisingly wry, analytical essay-film that starts out being about the DIY impulse, then becomes about what makes an artist great, and not a well-meaning wannabe. Exit features plenty of twists and turns—many involving the clandestine, lawbreaking art projects themselves—and it’s probably better if viewers don’t know the whole arc of the story going in. Suffice to say that Banksy’s movie grapples with the responsibility he feels for inspiring people like Guetta, and also grapples with the question of whether the enduring value of a piece of art derives from the image it captures, or the person who captures it. Exit Through The Gift Shop is a documentary that doubles as a comic thriller, and it’s as entertaining as it is thought-provoking. It may raise a lot of questions, but they’re all the right ones.