Is Exit Through the Gift Shop A Documentary?

Adelaide Powell - March 27, 2017

Exit Through the Gift Shop may or may not be a documentary. The film was directed by the anonymous British street artist named Banksy and recounts the transformation of amateur videographer Thierry Guetta into a self-proclaimed genius street artist.

Thierry, a French immigrant living in Los Angeles, is synonymous with the video camera he always carries in hand. His obsession with filming all aspects of life becomes his calling when he finds inspiration in documenting the escapades and creations of street artists. Thierry befriends famed street artist Shepard Fairey, who introduces him to Banksy. The artists interviewed in this film are usually hesitant to draw attention to themselves and show their faces on camera, but they eventually allow Thierry to film them in the hopes that he will be able to chronicle their ever-evolving and disappearing art form. They urge Thierry to put his footage to good use and make a movie, but they quickly realize that Thierry is not the filmmaker they thought him to be when he delivers a disappointing rough cut of his work.

During the first part of the film, it is unclear who the real subjectExit Through the Gift Shop is. It seems like Thierry is making a movie about Banksy, but the documentary subverts expectations (in typical Banksy fashion). Banksy takes over the reins of movie making after he sees the mess of a film that Thierry created from his recorded footage. Banksy suggests that Thierry himself make art, so that he might be able to get his hands on Thierry’s valuable tapes and put together his own documentary. In other words, Exit Through the Gift Shop is actually a film made by a street artist turned filmmaker about a filmmaker turned street artist.

Unbeknownst to Banksy (or maybe his intention all along), Thierry would be become a successful and highly-publicized figure in the street art world. In turning the camera away from himself and onto Thierry, Banksy successfully analyzes the medium of street art by presenting its history and critiquing the consumerist and temperamental endorsement of the public audience.

Found footage from previous street art documentaries is used at the beginning of the film, which relates to the modus operandi of street art itself: the appropriation and remixing of existing art and images to make an oppositional or creatively new statement. The montage of visuals introduces the street art phenomenon and the rapid-fire delivery of the images mimics the high-stakes, speedy posting of street art. The film employs a multitude of shooting styles, including direct interviews with people like Banksy, Thierry, Shepard Fairey, and other street artists. Even though Banksy is the director of the film, he is constantly shown in interviews, though with his appearance and voice masked. The film mostly uses chronological, continuity-style editing, which shows us Thierry’s history and transformation. ItExit Through the Gift Shop is defined by Thierry’s handheld, raw shooting style that he records with a shaky, grainy digital camera. His images are tinted and composed in a variety of lights and colors, giving them an ethereal quality. The most significant source of media in the film is the found footage of Thierry’s tapes, but the rest of the film is made up of high-definition recordings of Thierry’s art show and Banksy at work, after he got involved with the project. Banksy said that the editors on Exit Through the Gift Shop had to go through hundreds of hours of Thierry’s unusable footage to find film that would work in the documentary.

Music and voice-over narration are key elements of the sound used in Exit Through the Gift Shop. The film opens to the tune of Richard Hawley’s “The Streets Are Ours,” a reference to the street artist’s use of the streets as their canvases. Upbeat polka music plays in the background of much of the film, especially when Thierry is onscreen, and its comical tempo seems to poke fun at him, his foreignness, and his inexperience as filmmaker and street artist. The famous British actor Rhys Ifans narrates the film, which lends the movie credibility. When he says street art is the “biggest counter cultural movement since punk,” you believe it. This is important for lending weight to the film’s broader themes, and allowing its questions about street art and artistic creation to be applied to other art forms.

Exit Through the Gift Shop is in many ways a meta-film with its film within a film focus and its ruminations on the form and process of filmmaking. It is in the reflexive, formalistic tradition of Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera in the way it shows us the construction of the film and turns the camera on the man with a camera.

Thierry might be Banksy’s most involved work of art yet. The film evokes the questions of whether Thierry could actually be Banksy or even Banksy's creation. If events occurred in the manner depicted on screen, Thierry is still in many ways a product of Banksy (and Shepard Fairey and countless other street artists), as Banksy planted the idea in his head to start creating his own art. Banksy claims: “I always used to encourage everyone I met to make art; I used to think everyone should do it. I don’t really do that so much anymore,” acknowledging his involvement in negatively shaping Thierry’s actions.

The existing question of whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary, a mockumentary, a complete prank or a half-truth only makes the film more intriguing. Documentary films are supposed to diverge from narrative films in their ability to capture reality and the “truth,” but whether these are actual capabilities of documentary films is another question. Documentary filmmaker John Grierson described the genre as “the creative treatment of actuality”, but it can be argued if all films apply to this notion. Some would argue that the implicit act of setting up a camera and filming takes away the reality of the recorded event. Further, the framing and editing involved in documentary filmmaking conceivably alters the reality of what existed before the creation of the film. These criticisms of the genre in some ways make the question of whether or not Exit Through the Gift Shop is a real documentary moot, because the film can be analyzed through so many other perspectives.

Adelaide Powell

Adelaide Powell is a freshman studying communications and film. In addition to writing for The Moviegoer and being part of the Penn Cinema Initiative, Adelaide works at the Kelly Writers House and writes for the Daily Pennsylvanian. Prior to coming to Philadelphia, she lived in Copenhagen, Denmark and has moved around frequently. Besides traveling, Adelaide enjoys reading, writing, eating good food, and of course watching movies. Some of her favorite films are Charade, Slumdog Millionaire, Midnight in Paris, and Six Degrees of Separation.