Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Exit Through the Gift Shop, Five Years Later

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After premiering at Sundance five years ago, one of the most talked-about documentaries of 2010 was Exit Through the Gift Shop, the artist Banksy’s comic, semi-autobiographical history of street art. “It’s a masterpiece! — It’s a travesty! — It’s a master-travesty! — It’s the best documentary ever! — It’s not a documentary at all, but an elaborate prank by an insolent prankster….”

Enthusiasts and critics are chronically nearsighted. We have the tendency to deem every new twist or turn a breakthrough in the form or a masterpiece. Intellectually, we know that this is a contradiction because masterpieces are only revealed through the perspective of time. Breakthroughs cannot be recognized without the distance to see if they will persist in the critical discussion and influence conventions and practices.

When we look back, we can say with confidence that films like Night and Fog and Tongues Untied are influential landmarks. They taught us new ways of seeing and showing, representing experiences and ideas that had not been seen in a cinematic light before. We are certain of this now because these new subjects and modes of representation are part of the landscape today.

Exit Through the Gift Shop generated a lot of discussion in 2010 about its veracity as well as about what it did with the documentary form. Some saw it as a nascent landmark, others as a cheap parlor trick. Hindsight is not only clearer, it has more context. In the case of Exit Through the Gift Shop, we do have more perspective. In five years, it has begun to validate itself historically as it holds up and influences documentary filmmaking.

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Towards the end of 2010, documentary filmmaker and commentator AJ Schnack scored an exclusive interview with Banksy (or “Banksy”). One could argue that this interview put to rest the big issue surrounding the film, or that it fanned the flames, but it was at least a trustworthy last word on the film for the calendar year of 2010. After explaining the terms of the interview with the elusive pseudonymous artist (an email exchange facilitated by the producer of the film), AJ got to the meat: “There seemed to be this undercurrent of suspicion, perhaps because of the press’s desire to paint you as a prankster, that the film was trying to pull one over on us.”

Banksy’s response was predictably challenging: the film was “100% true,” he claimed. He then added: “Besides, if the movie was a carefully scripted prank you can be sure I would’ve given myself some better lines. I love that famous Jack Benny comeback to a heckler — ‘You wouldn’t say that if my writers were here.’ But I’ve always wondered — did his writers tell him to say that?”

One of the interesting things about this exchange (and it is clearer now than it was in 2010) is that Schnack was asking the wrong question and Banksy was asking the right one. The key to understanding Exit Through the Gift Shop is not asking, is it true? But asking instead, why use a medium prized for truth-telling to create a work that intentionally provokes skepticism?

Regardless of the veracity of the actual footage, if Banksy had wanted to present the story of street art in a straightforward way, he could have done so. He chose not to. The undercurrent of suspicion does not start with the press, as AJ (perhaps coyly) suggested; it starts with the first frame of the film (or with foreknowledge of Banksy as an artist, which I’ll get to in a bit).

In the first frame of Exit, we see the logo for Paranoid Pictures — a close knock-off of the Paramount logo. Gunfire fills the speakers as the arch of stars is replaced by bullet holes. We see “a Bansky film” in distressed type. Documentary textbooks tell us that the choices a filmmaker makes are designed to instill a sense of trust in the audience. This convention is not just being mocked — it’s being assassinated.

All but the least experienced documentary viewer will sense that something is not quite right here. The narrator is an over-the-top exaggeration of the British voice of authority. The first part of the film is ostensibly told from the point of view of Thierry Guetta, a passionate amateur videographer. However, Banksy (on screen but in disguise) has already informed us that “the film is the story of what happened when a guy tried to make a documentary about me but he was actually a lot more interesting than I am so now the film is kind of about him.”

Thierry proceeds to break every basic rule of documentary filmmaking. He becomes not just a confidant of his subjects but also an accomplice, finding locations for graffiti artists to paint and assisting in their exploits. Passion becomes obsession and he eschews any sense of ethics in order to get the shot. The subversions of form and convention come so quickly that we have no choice to go with it at the same time that we register the subtle ridiculousness. In Banksy’s depiction, Thierry is the archetypical documentary poseur.

When the “twist” happens and we learn Thierry is not really making a film at all, everything about these scenes is played to the satirical hilt: the narration, the music, and the hoarder-like panning shots of Thierry’s boxes of videotapes, which we ominously learn are “never to be seen.” The “reveal” that Thierry is indeed not really a documentarian ostensibly leads to Banksy taking the reins and finishing the film we now see. This part of the film — the shifting in the very terms of representation — is the true innovation of Exit Through the Gift Shop. It is also the part of the film that is hardest to take at face value. It’s like that Jack Benny line: a conscious nod to the idea that someone is pulling the strings here.

If we accept that Exit is intended to trigger skepticism, the question remains: why? Perhaps, as AJ suggests, the reason is based in the tendency of the press to see Banksy as a prankster. However, this misses half the point: Banksy is a prankster. Street art has a baked-in aspect of rebellion, rule-breaking and, well, criminality. Anyone familiar with Banksy would be primed with this information going into the film. Moreover, Banksy would have been aware of this also. Had he created a straight-ahead cultural portrait of the street art movement, it’s likely that his claims and motives would have been questioned anyway. The deep irreverence towards documentary convention in Exit could essentially be a preemptive defense against anticipated charges of exaggeration and self-aggrandizement.

There is a good argument to be made that this strategy worked, and on Banksy’s terms. Audiences and critics generally came out of the film with a sense of disbelief that caused them to run to the Internet to verify some of the more wild claims (especially about the rise of Guetta’s artistic alter ego, Mr. Brainwash). All of the main factual representations in Exit hold up to investigation as either true or an extremely long con. Thus Banksy fulfills another of his artistic tropes: turning audience reaction into part of the art. “The public reaction is what supplies meaning and value. Art comes alive in the arguments you have about it. If we’ve done our job properly with Exit, then the best part of the entire movie is the conversation in the car park afterwards.”

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Many people who take documentary seriously are very sensitive about falsehood being presented as truth (and rightly so, that kind of lying can be dangerous). What Banksy did turns out to be the opposite: presenting the truth as a potential falsehood that needs to be investigated and debated. Provocation of discussion and prophylaxis against criticism are two good reasons to make a documentary that feels like a prank even if it isn’t. However, this analysis still falls short of fully understanding the artist known as “Banksy” and the genius of Exit Through the Gift Shop.

At the true heart of all this skepticism and satire is the initial conceit (or deception) of all of Banksy’s work: “Banksy” (i.e., the performance of the artist persona by an individual or individuals in disguise) is itself art. This was true long before the film existed. The entire discussion of meaning and intention in art (including in this very piece) is predicated on the notion of authorship — the idea of there being a creator of the work. If we want to be skeptical about Exit, we need to be skeptical about everything. How do we know that the person on camera in disguise is the same person directing the movie and/or the person making the actual art? We don’t — and of course, this is intentional.

Only at the point when the whole premise of the medium is blown up do we begin to see Exit clearly. This is not the vaguely institutional voice of the public-affairs tradition (though this is heartily mocked). Nor is it the subjective but forthright viewpoint of the observational and participatory documentary traditions (also mocked!). Rather, the perspective of Exit (starting with the very claim of authorship) is that of an unreliable narrator. While it was not unprecedented in documentary to call into question the relationships between subject, filmmaker and audience, Banksy thoroughly drenched his film in a reflexivity that transcended the work itself. It slyly built on existing biases and unapologetically demanded additional investigation on the part of viewers.

Five years later, we can say more about Exit Through the Gift Shop not necessarily because we are smarter, but because we know more about what came after. We know that the last five years have produced a bumper crop of extraordinary films that problematize subject/filmmaker/audience relationships in new and provocative ways. Examples include 5 Broken CamerasThis is Not a FilmStories We TellThe Act of Killing and Actress. Each of these films challenged viewers to consider the circumstances of its creation — something that traditional documentary tends to discourage. Like Exit (though by different means and for diverse reasons), each of these films draws attention to the complex power dynamic between subject, creator and audience. This results in rich and nuanced viewing experiences that stretch the notion of how a documentary can function in terms of representation and intellectual engagement. Exit Through the Gift Shop did not make these films possible, but it cleared a path for them to be understood and embraced by audiences and critics.

Special thanks for invaluable feedback on a draft of this piece to the students in my Art and Genre of Documentary at The George Washington Universitys School of Media and Public Affairs.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Göran Hugo Olsson’s Concerning Violence

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I was excited to see Concerning Violence, Göran Hugo Olsson’s follow-up to his powerful and groundbreaking The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975. This new film promised to deliver another unique look at forgotten moments in the history of resistance to oppression. In the end, I struggled to understand Concerning Violence.What (if anything) is this film is trying to communicate to an audience? Why did the filmmaker make the choices he did with this spectacular yet harrowing material? Does this treatment do justice to the crucially important historical subject it depicts?

The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 succeeded by using its wealth of archival material in a cinematic way that invited audiences to dive into each piece of film as an artifact unto itself and to assemble those artifacts into a coherent history. It wove the potent footage — featuring familiar historical figures but in more extended and extemporaneous clips than many had seen — together with commentary by contemporary African-American artists and thinkers. The loosely structured film invited audiences to make connections between people and events, and the past and the present, without forcing any agenda (aside from the intrinsic value of this history).

Concerning Violence, subtitled Nine Scenes from the Anti-Imperialistic Self-Defense, also has a unique design for the use of archival footage in documentary. The topic this time is less familiar to most Americans: African peoples’ efforts to overcome colonization. The commentary is made up of excerpts from The Wretched of the Earthby revolutionary postcolonial philosopher Franz Fanon. The hip-hop artist Lauryn Hill reads portions of this text and, in an odd decision, this commentary is also rendered as text on-screen. The large white letters obscure the archival footage throughout the film.

The use of language in relation to cinematic voice in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975 was subtle. In Concerning Violence, it is brutal. It begins with a six-minute preface read by philosopher Gayatri Spivak. Spivak is an important figure and what she says has merit, but the treatment is anti-cinematic to the point of incomprehensibility. Spivak sits in a swiveling chair in a university office, her figure overwhelmed by mountains of books — the word is literally dominating the image. She talks directly to the camera in highly academic language that seems to be part explanation and part apologia. It’s hard to tell because the density of information is overwhelming when presented in this format. Is this a warning or more a matter of the filmmaker attempting to acclimate the audience to the anti-cinematic use of language that permeates the film?

The body of the film is equally challenging. The footage is stark and at times blisters with violence incarnate. Fanon’s words are still sharply provocative today. Hill’s strong voice reflects the potency of the message. Yet, in Olsson’s hands, these pieces are not melded together in a way that makes sense for the cinema. As in The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, the use of long, uncut clips is merited by the nature of the rich and visceral footage. However, unlike the previous film, the intervention of the white text — always depicting Fanon’s words simultaneously with Hill’s voice — creates a puzzling barrier to absorbing the reality captured in the footage. The audience is frustrated, even alienated, by the need to peer through the words to see images that would seem to present the most indexical value to the history being depicted.

It is possible to deconstruct these unconventional choices. Spivak, for instance, initially came to prominence for writing an unconventional translator’s preface to the English edition of French poststructuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida’s opus On Grammatology. In this text, Derrida is largely concerned with “the violence of the letter,” which becomes a powerful theoretical tool in connecting language to power. The poststructuralists sought a break with the history of philosophy and letters. They saw the relationships between sign, signified, and signifier as power relationships that needed to be understood and subverted in much the same way that colonial power structures needed to be dismantled.

Perhaps it is Olsson’s intention to evoke these ideas symbolically. The brutal, anti-cinematic use of language in Concerning Violence can be seen as a symbol for violence itself. Perhaps alienation and separation are the feelings intended for the audience by the filmmaker. What would the opposite of these emotions — feelings of comfort and assurance — mean in reaction to images of racist brutality? Too often historical documentary serves as a salve. It renders historical violence as dramatic arc, defanging history and rendering it more palatable, safe and comfortable. Olsson’s anti-cinematic choices can be seen as intentional symbolic violence directed at the audience, designed to prevent us from having a typical and potentially voyeuristic experience of this footage. Our desire to see violence from our privileged theater seat may itself be violent.

Intellectually, I can understand how the brutal anti-cinematic voice of Concerning Violence may be valid. Cinematically, I cannot. Experimentation is needed in the historical documentary genre because the traditional modes of representation do reinforce old ways of seeing and knowing. Concerning Violence is an interesting philosophical treatise in this regard. Spivak calls it a “teaching text.” As a movie, it is more of a failed experiment.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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The overall value of higher education

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In his Nov. 23 Sunday Opinion commentary, “Thinking too highly of higher ed,” Peter Thiel set up several straw-man rationales for the value of higher education. Each of these was based in a purely market-based philosophy: Perhaps education is an investment in one’s future career; or maybe it is about consumption, or a competition of sorts. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Thiel then took down each one of these straw men, thus questioning the ultimate value of higher education and the president’s assertion that it is of value for all Americans.

Mr. Thiel failed to consider that there are other reasons for higher education, particularly in a democracy. Especially in the liberal arts tradition, education is not thought of exclusively as job preparation. The core skills and values of independent thought, critical thinking, research and analysis are applicable to citizens in ways that transcend career or economics. Human beings ought to be not only economic decision-makers but also citizens in an active polity and contributors to a vibrant culture.

To the extent that Mr. Thiel is suggesting that higher education does not always live up to these ideals, I agree. To the presumption that it should be evaluated solely on economic utility, I disagree wholeheartedly.

(published in The Washington Post.)

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Jason Osder (Let the Fire Burn) Talks Orlando von Einsiedel’s Virunga

I watch a lot of documentaries. In fact, I first saw Virunga at Hot Docs, the largest documentary festival in North America. I was there just to watch documentaries and I probably saw 20 in that week alone. In all of that documentary-watching, Virunga — named for the Congolese national park that is its subject — still stands out as a uniquely compelling film.

I also teach non-fiction filmmaking, and there are certain issues that persist in the eternal discussion of what makes a great documentary (and what are the limits of what can rightly be called a documentary at all). Do we judge a documentary primarily by its cinematic qualities or its political saliency? Is it more important to innovate the form or to impact social action? Any way you look at it, this film about the plight of the last surviving population of mountain gorillas, imperiled by endemic warfare and Big Oil, gets high marks.

In cinematic terms, Virunga plays more like a fiction film — an action thriller, really — than any documentary I can remember. It is an emotional roller-coaster akin not so much to Harlan County, USA as to The Bourne Identity. At Hot Docs, I was sitting next to documentary film critic Tom Roston, who later ranked Virunga his #1 film at the festival. Seeing it at the TIFF Bell Lightbox on a giant screen with perfect projection and sound was truly a treat, even for a seasoned doc-head.

As far as innovation is concerned, what’s unique in my experience is the way Virungaachieves its narrative engagement through a mixture of genres. The first part of the film is influenced primarily by the natural-history tradition of filmmaking. Even well-worn visual themes (gorillas, mist, mountains) become sumptuous when rendered for the big screen as expertly as they are here. Yes, there are familiar tropes at work in the film, romantic and humanist notions about nature, and anthropomorphizing narrative structures. However, when the actuality merits the long aerial shots and expressive close-ups of endangered primates, we are enchanted.

This enchantment is not put to the expected uses by Virunga, and this is the real magic of the film. Just as we are getting comfortable with these familiar archetypes and rhythms, Virunga changes the script. A tense military situation is developing nearby. Unusually for a natural history piece, soon we are meeting new characters, learning about troop movements and front lines. As the tension builds, we realize that this conflict is not merely a vague context for a warm and fuzzy story of gorillas and park rangers, but a major part of this film. When we return to scenes in the park, the stakes have risen dramatically.

It’s a pleasing hybrid, but just as we begin to feel we have Virunga all figured out, another style and genre are introduced. The British oil company SOCO International is irresponsibly exploring for oil. Corruption is afoot. Another new character, freelance reporter Mélanie Gouby, is on the inside of this story, potentially at her own peril. With an investigative style that now includes tense hidden-camera footage, the mode of documentary filmmaking has again completely shifted.

It sounds like this shouldn’t work, but it does. These stories are woven together like a tightly plotted novel, informing and converging as the film unfolds. Perhaps it works too well. This was Tom Roston’s initial comment to me as we walked out off the theater. He picks up on the theme in his piece: “This is not a typical film for the doc crowd. It’s a movie for the mainstream. But that very well may be its greatest flaw. The doc audience could be thrown by the slickness of Virunga, and its Hollywood-style storytelling. […] I loved it. I’m a doc-lover with a mainstream sensibility.”

I’m a doc-lover with a formal sensibility, and I loved it too. However, to judge from the awards discussion and the comments of some peers (mainly filmmakers and academics), Tom was not incorrect. Many found the combination of styles jarring or the storytelling too pat. While I can see those criticisms, I didn’t see them on my first viewing, when I was completely enthralled.

We can continue to argue Virunga’s contribution to the documentary form, but we must also acknowledge that it delivers on a different set of goals around awareness and agency. As much as this film plays like a Hollywood blockbuster, it is also an activist film to its core, with a clear cause and a loud call to action.

It is a common critique of documentary criticism that it focuses on content to the exclusion of form. While this may be true, what we should strive for is balance. The importance of a topic or message does matter to the overall quality of a documentary film. A talented and sensitive filmmaker can uncover this import even with a subject that may seem mundane on its surface. The subject of Virunga, however, is epic. The mixture of genres, heavily molded into a dramatic narrative package, delivers on a central moral message that cannot be missed. If we, as humans, allow this archetypal example of natural beauty and renewable value to fall victim to the forces of greed and corruption, is anything safe?

It is a powerful message, but can a film make a difference? This is yet another way that we tend to judge documentaries nowadays. The creators of Virunga do indeed encourage viewers to get involved and provide tools on their own website. There’s little doubt that, as with Blackfish, The Cove and many others before them, the powerful interests indicted in Virunga will challenge the veracity of the claims made by the film. This in itself can be seen as progress towards holding these interests accountable.

Can Virgunga National Park be saved? On that question, only time can tell. I am of the school of thought that believes the supposed divide between art and impact in documentary is a false dichotomy (hat tip, Cara Mertes). If a film is going to change minds or prompt action, it must first grab our attention with great storytelling about a topic that really matters. For starters, Virunga is all that.

(published at The Talkhouse.)

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Playback: Jeff Malmberg’s ‘Marwencol’

Midway through Jeff Malmberg’s Marwencol, I was sitting on the edge of my seat. My chin was in my hand and my mouth was slightly open. Also, I actually realized it. There was a moment during the film when I consciously thought, “How did I get in this position?” This film had hypnotized me.

That was SilverDocs 2010. I was privileged enough to be at the film festival just to watch films. I spent a lot of that year going to festivals to study and prepare to cut my first feature doc. I’d been to school for documentary and I had the support of the university where I teach production. I was in a very analytical, diagnostic mode, trying to understand filmmakers’ choices and how each film worked with an audience.

I’m accustomed to understanding a film in terms of structure and methodology on the first viewing. Marwencol, the story of Mark Hogancamp seeking recovery from a brutal attack through creating a miniature World War II town in his back yard, had cast a spell on me. At least in that first viewing, I had no idea how it worked—and that drove me crazy. As soon as it was available on home video, I watched it repeatedly to understand its structure and get a handle on its deftness.

Marwencol is a film about many things: traumatic brain injury, coping, art and the human condition. That day, it reminded me of just how captivating a well-made doc can be. Catching myself on the edge of my chair was inspiring. It didn’t remind me of why I want to make movies; it reminded me why I like watching them.

When I go to screenings of my film now, I look for that body language in the audience: the leaning forward, the open mouths. I especially like to see peoples’ hands touching their faces. I want to see that my film has reached them. It’s not an intellectual thing, but a physical-emotional one. The discussion, the questioning of facts, the unpacking of issues and meaning—those things will come later.

Marwencol reminded me that a documentary can make you forget where you are for a moment and allow yourself to be present in the world of the film. A great documentary doesn’t just explain an issue or even tell a story; it transports us. I suppose that is the appeal of most movies—to live in a different world for a couple hours. Too often, however, this power is employed solely for escapism.

Just as a great documentary can transport us, it can also transform us. Marwencol seems to be saying that we all create models of the world, at least in our own minds. At the beginning of the film, Mark’s model world is private. During the course of the film, he shares it and in doing so is transformed. Like Mark Hogancamp’s miniature world, a great documentary is not just a way out, but also a way through.

(published in Documentary Magazine.)

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