January 26, 2011
Must the Best Documentary be Non-Fiction?
Posted by Erik Gerding

I was excited to see one of my favorite movies of 2010 – Exit through the Gift Shop -- nominated for an Oscar yesterday, but a more than a little amused that it was placed in the Best Documentary category. Is a movie a documentary if there is a not insignificant chance that much of it is not only not non-fiction (Yes – I note how many negatives I knot together) but, moreover, a masterful hoax?

The movie is structured as a documentary about a failed documentary or what the kids might call a meta-documentary. Be forewarned that the rest of this post is chock full of spoilers….

A French émigré named Thierry Guetta who runs a high end consignment shop in L.A. develops an obsession with videotaping his entire life. He later fixates on taping Los Angeles’s street art scene and shoots tub loads of cassettes of artists such as Shephard Fairey (creator of the Obama Hope campaign image) surreptitiously painting and pasting their works all over Los Angeles. Guetta gains the trust of street artists by claiming to be making a documentary, despite having no experience or idea how to do so. Guetta later obsesses with finding a way to meet and shoot footage of reclusive British street artist Banksy. He ultimately meets Banksy, gains his trust, and madcap adventures ensue.

The movie shifts gears when Banksy realizes that Guetta has no artistic talent at all and cannot make a film to save his life. Banksy commandeers Guetta’s tapes to make his own documentary (which turns out to be the movie the audience is watching). He distracts Guetta by convincing him to try his own hand at street art. Guetta transforms himself into an artist with the nom de guerre, “Mr. Brainwash.” He then decides to emulate Banksy and hold a massive gallery exhibit of his own street art in L.A. – despite the fact that he has yet to create a single piece. Brainwash then hires local artists to create his pieces for his gallery opening, giving them just the flimsiest of ideas to start. Clueless Brainwash focuses on publicizing his coming show and breaking his foot rather than creating any art for it himself. Ultimately, Mr. Brainwash earns hundreds of thousands of dollars at his guerrilla art show and subsequently designs an album cover for Madonna.

This synopsis cannot do justice to the utter nit-wittiness of Guetta/Brainwash. By the movie’s end, it is utterly implausible as non-fiction. It seems more an elaborate, but thoroughly entertaining, hoax created by this Banksy street artist to satirize the johnny-come-latelys who are cashing in as street art moves from the underground to high-price galleries. Even so, this movie deserves to win Best Documentary. The documentary categories help Hollywood types congratulate themselves on having sufficient moral fiber in their industry. This type of satire can remind Hollywood what comes with a high fiber diet.

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