The following post was contributed by Mike Fleisch.
“Why Is Exit Through the Gift Shop Nominated for Best Documentary?” ask Linda Flanagan and Sarah Sangree. It’s a fair question. How did the organization responsible for cementing in the public consciousness a cinema-value system of movie stars and marketing budgets manage to get this one right? To include a work for our consideration that so compellingly and directly challenges mainstream conceptions of art, celebrity, and authorship, among other things? Unfortunately, Flanagan and Sangree take a different stance:
Exit Through the Gift Shop purports to tell the story of Thierry Guetta, a slightly unhinged vintage clothing store owner-turned-filmmaker who falls in love with street art, meets and compulsively films its iconic and secretive creators, and then, in a film within-a-film shot by Banksy, supposedly discovers his own artistic potential. His new alter ego is known as Mr. Brainwash, and his derivative “art,” manufactured by assistants, is a huge commercial success. Banksy and Shepard Fairey (known for his Obama Hope poster) chuckle over their friend’s good fortune even as they gently mock him…
Audiences have lapped it up. Viewers congratulate themselves for being so postmodern, and so very smart… There are enough questions about Banksy’s role, the real identity of Guetta, and whether this is all an elaborate piece of performance art to drop it from consideration…
Nonfiction work has its own creative category in literature and media because it is a distinct intellectual and artistic endeavor, and veracity is its main claim to legitimacy. When The New York Times or The New Republic find a plagiarist in their midst, alarms go off and heads roll…
It’s hard to make sense of this film’s nomination in the documentary category, except as a ploy by the Academy to remain relevant with a younger audience that is presumably indifferent to truth and sympathetic to guerrilla graffiti artists.
The authors apparently feel “lied to,” and take exception to perceived dishonesty in a mode that they believe to be inherently about Truth-tellers telling the Truth. They’re hung up on mercifully outdated notions of agency, individual genius, and represented reality. Notice that the events of the film remain unquestioned: the street art scenes depicted, Mr. Brainwash’s rise… these are not in dispute. The ambiguity Flanagan and Sangree resent is rather: are the interviewees lying, and is Guetta for real– is he a real artist? Are we to take him seriously? What is the answer!?
For starters, we have to understand how the category Best Documentary–Feature itself reflects cultural and historical influences. Ignoring for a moment the problematic subjectivity hinted at by the word “Best,” let’s quickly review the historical documentary mode of filmmaking.
When first the Lumiere brothers changed the world by putting light to intermittently moving celluloid, short films of trains entering stations and workers leaving factories resulted. The commercial moving image was born with these “actuality films,” rooted in spectacle. Soon travelogues and the films of Robert Flaherty purported to show audiences how Eskimos lived; Flaherty famously asked hunters to use harpoons instead of their preferred shotguns. Dziga Vertov contributed to the Soviet Kino-Pravda (Film Truth!) newsreel series by manipulating the medium itself, with varying film speeds, lenses, and experimental editing. Wartime newsreel footage frequently involved reenactments for the camera, and then propaganda film really got going in World War II, with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will pitted against Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. And right there we have our first Oscar-winning Best Documentary of feature length… In 1942, twenty-five nominees, all war propaganda, were pared down to four winners, including Prelude to War, the first of Capra’s series (also nominated was Mr. Gardenia Jones, starring Ronald Reagan in the title role). But then, would any blue-blooded, honest-to-goodness Real American in 1942 have called these films anything other than The Truth?
Technological advances and shrinking cameras led to handheld cinematography and the midcentury phenomena of cinéma-vérité and direct cinema, which aimed to remove the distancing mechanism of mediation and place viewers in the middle of the action. Werner Herzog most eloquently refutes this approach:
Cinema is inherently able to present a number of dimensions much deeper than the level of truth that we find in cinéma vérité and even reality itself, and it is these dimensions that are the most fertile areas for filmmakers. I truly hope to be one of those to finally bury cinéma vérité for good…Cinéma vérité is the accountant’s truth, it merely skirts the surface of what constitutes a deeper form of truth in cinema.
Herzog addresses his comments to the formal elements and stylistic choices of vérité, but we can apply them with equal weight to the modern practice of documentary film as fact-based journalism-argument, here described and advocated by Flanagan and Sangree:
The best (documentaries) combine trenchant investigative journalism with compelling characters and a well-crafted narrative, shining a light into unexplored corners and challenging us to think about the world in a new way. We hold documentary filmmakers and other purported truth-tellers to a higher standard because sometimes what we learn drives us to change how we think, feel and live. We have to trust them.
Doesn’t really resonate, does it? They’re talking about a classroom exercise, a transfer of declarative sentences from one with knowledge to one without– a trusting, open soul just waiting for sufficiently clear marching orders. It takes real condescension to allow the audience so little responsibility.
Contrast this with the challenge Exit Through the Gift Shop poses for a viewer. The film manages to:
- tell the story of a real-life art “success story,” Mr. Brainwash, from bystander to worldwide phenomenon and economic wonder
- translate the ethos and philosophy of street art, its project, to the medium of film, including the balancing acts of entertainment and craft, of claimed ownership and gift
- ask questions about authenticity and authorship, both within the narrative and by the film’s very existence and controversy
- allow audiences to interpret motive, character, and scenario for themselves, without clear heroes and villains
- BACKGROUND the best existing footage of street art practice, by the world’s most prolific and recognized practitioners
Looking again, Flanagan and Sangree’s summary of the best docs (minus “trenchant investigative journalism”) literally, if incompletely, describes Exit:
…compelling characters and a well-crafted narrative, shining a light into unexplored corners and challenging us to think about the world in a new way.
The question is, how do we respond to the challenge? And…how did the Academy get it right?