Naturally, Banksy would be incapable of making a straightforward documentary. But what he does make is much better, and stranger. And wildly entertaining.
The film opens with a talking head of Banksy, hooded, face obscured by shadow and voice modulated to preserve his anonymity. Is this really Banksy? Who knows. He gives us a brief prologue saying a man set out to film him as part of a documentary about street art, but eventually the film became about that man himself.
It then introduces us to Thierry Guetta, a French expatriate living in Hollywood who had this compulsion to document just about every waking moment of his life using a video recorder. This compulsion eventually places him in the right place at the right time, as he makes inroads into the burgeoning street art scene of the late 90s and early 2000s. He begins tagging along with the Obey guy and documenting various street artists in Europe and LA as they run around tagging walls and putting up posters. Its grainy, cinema verite, guerrilla filmmaking. Eventually, Thierry gains access to the Holy Grail – Banksy, maintaining all along that he is making a documentary with all the footage. In fact, he is just hoarding it, thousands upon thousands of hours of tape for no reason other than that he is a nutcase.
At a certain point, these street artists begin to become accepted in the mainstream and their work starts selling for big money which is when Banksy instructs Thierry to make the long-planned documentary – to show the real story of the street art scene, before everything became a big dollar wank-fest for wealthy art collectors. Thierry then comes back with what can only be described as an abomination. Watching the person who may be Banksy describe how terrible the experience of watching Thierry's film is has to be one of the documentary's many great pleasures.
According to Banksy, at this point he took the footage from Thierry in the hopes of cutting it together into something better, and he sent Thierry back to LA with an off-hand instruction to “try and open a show.” Thierry takes this as tacit approval to mount an enormous show in Los Angeles featuring hundreds of pieces of horrible, derivative art for it has become obvious at this point that Thierry is a no-talent weirdo who almost certainly has mental problems and the only reason he is even in this story is because he and his compulsive obsession with filming his entire life – a decade before vlogs or snapchat were even a glimmer in the internet’s eye – happened to be in the right place at the right time.
The documentary chronicles the set-up and launch of his show. It is incompetently planned and pulled off only with the help of a fixer brought in by Banksy. Thierry exploits his connection to famous street artists to get a lot of press coverage and when the show opens he sells his pieces – which are, objectively, garbage – for thousands of dollars. Thousands of people come to the show. Thierry, going by the nom de guerre Mr Brainwash, is now a bone fide success in the world of illiterate art collectors. And this, then, is the film – Banksy inadvertently creating a monster in Thierry Guetta, an artist with no discernible talent whatsoever who manages to get famous and successful simply by linking his name to Banksy. The best line of the film is when Banksy recalls that after seeing Thierry’s “film” he began to wonder if perhaps Thierry was not a filmmaker at all but rather “a person with mental problems who just happened to have a camera.”
But wait, there's more! As I began researching this film, it became apparent that many people are convinced this is a mockumentary. How could someone like Thierry really exist? they ask. How could the art world really be duped by such an obvious no-talent hack who has no business mounting an art show? Surely, this is Banksy playing a joke on us, the ultimate in art imitating life imitating art with a wink and a nod. Maybe, some have postulated, Thierry is actually Banksy himself.
A big part of Banksy’s genius is not just his art, but this cult of mystery he has so thoroughly cultivated around himself that people come to question everything he does, suspecting this entire documentary is actually an elaborate and subversive commentary on the art world and our culture in general. But I think – and everyone involved in the film has insisted – that it is the real deal. Thierry is a real person, and all evidence indicates he is really the person portrayed in the film – an obsessive, mentally unstable man who spent years taping everything, often times getting into confrontations with real celebrities (there is a run-in with Jay Leno that is not to be missed). Also, the film that he made of his thousands of hours of footage is real and just as bad as you might believe. I think you can find it on Youtube.
All of that checks out and has been verified. The LA Times even went so far as to check out the story using public records and interviewing Thierry’s past associates. So the only real question is, was it Banksy’s intention to turn this talentless turd into an art super-star just to show everyone how stupid the art world is when it comes to evaluating art? They insist not, and there is no real way to know. But Thierry’s behaviour while trying to set up his show is consistent with everything we already knew about him so I think all the pieces fit together too perfectly for this to be an elaborate hoax.
Either way, whether intentional or not, the creation of a troglodyte like Thierry Guetta who feeds off the fumes of brighter stars like a succubus is a fascinating story. And this film does manage to splice in, during the first third, some cool footage of street artists doing their thing so it serves as a pretty cool snapshot of a style of art that is by its very nature impermanent and fleeting, while also telling this bizarre tale of a weird spasm in the art world that pulls the curtain back on how evaluating art is a fool’s game and nobody really knows what the fuck they are talking about when it comes to art, which why a clown like Thierry can take a print of someone else’s work, splash paint on it and sell it for tens of thousands of dollars.
It is a fascinating, interesting film that probably should have won the Oscar for Best Documentary. And Banksy makes for a great interview, whether that really is him or not. Who knows? All reality is just motion suspended in space at the moment at which we observe it and all the rest is dust.