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Sundance Review: Exit Through the Gift Shop

By  · Published on January 25th, 2010

To say that I’ve been a fan of the work of reclusive British street artist Banksy would be a bit of an overstatement. I’ve been aware of his work for a few years, and have even seen several of his works in Los Angeles. I’ve enjoyed his sense of humor in his art, and have always suspected him to be a sardonic man. So it doesn’t surprise me that his debut as a feature film director, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is as irreverent as the man himself.

But this isn’t a movie about Banksy. You should know that up front.

It is a film about street art, and more specifically about an enigmatic French clothing store owner named Terry Guetta. Some folks may know him as the artist Mr. Brain Wash, a very successful commercial street artist. But this predates Mr. Brain Wash, and goes back to the late 1990s, when Terry was merely a man obsessed with capturing his entire life on video. As it turned out, his cousin was an up-and-coming street artist called Space Invader, who worked nights in France and Los Angeles, decorating the town with cute little pixel aliens. Upon spending time with Space Invader, Terry became obsessed with street artists, eventually meeting up with the likes of Shepard Fairey (who’s responsible for Obey Giant and the famous Barack Obama “Hope” poster) and others.

What starts as a seemingly pointless endeavor for Terry soon becomes something much more important. For the first time, someone was capturing the masters of street art – including eventually, Banksy – in their element, operating in a legal gray area and peppering major cities with often beautiful works of art. But there was one problem. Terry wasn’t a filmmaker, no matter how hard he tried. And he did try. After years of filming, Terry put together a film to show Banksy. In a word, it was atrocious. So instead of letting that be the authoritative work on street art, Banksy decided to take Terry’s tape and turn it into Exit Through the Gift Shop.

It is this element of revisionism that makes this film so interesting. To see a project start out as one thing (a doc about street art) and turn into something completely different (a doc about Terry Guetta and his many misadventures) without losing the vision of the original film (it’s still about street art) is more than intriguing, its endlessly captivating. It helps that the film is frantically paced and filled with acerbic commentary of the world of street art. And it doesn’t hurt that Banksy’s electric style of rebellion carries over perfectly to celluloid.

This film serves as an energetic, chaotic and thoroughly enjoyable look at a world of street art that is completely foreign to many of us. Sure, we may have seen a Banksy here and there, and seen his work on the news. But how many of us know how he does what he does? This documentary isn’t the final word on Banksy, as its lens is most often turned toward the follies of Terry, but it does provide insight into one of the most interesting contemporary artists of our time. It’s an incredible ride, and one that speaks to anyone who’s ever considered rebellion from social norms. And like those rebels, its always running from the cops.

Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)