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Thierry Guetta is obsessed with documenting every detail of his life: he films his family eating meals, he films the road as he drives to work, sometimes he accidentally catches a passing celebrity on camera. And when he got the chance to film prominent street artists, including Banksy, he recognized the potential for a fascinating documentary. In the end, Banksy himself took up the task of editing over 5,000 hours of videos that Thierry had amassed over the course of decades, and the result of their work is Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010). It must have been overwhelming but thrilling documentary to make: Thierry captured some of the most enigmatic and prominent street artists creating their work.
Luckily, the documentary mostly lives up to its source material: it is well-edited and consistently entertaining. The storytelling is engaging, thanks in part to a lively, albeit sarcastic, narration by Rhys Ifans. Banksy interviewed several street artists for this film, including himself: their comments are alternately insightful and hilarious. However, the interview that really holds together the film is that of Thierry Guetta, who not only created most of the footage, but also provides the movie’s narrative backbone. He is wildly eccentric and only becomes more so as the movie progresses. Along with his increasing eccentricity, he also becomes more and more egotistical. Especially in the second half of the movie, the filmmaker toes the line between comedy and unfunny mockery of a socially inept character.
At around the same point in the movie that Guetta crosses the line between amusingly eccentric and depressingly obnoxious, it turns out that Banksy might have had too much material to work with in order to create a thematically unified documentary: the movie starts to wear thin and it assumes a hurried pace. The first half, with all its playfulness and fascinating characters, does not lead to any real conclusion or theme.
Maybe that’s the point: both the movie and its subject matter have so many layers of parody that it’s hard to sort out what parts are “meaninfully meaningless” from those that are genuinely empty. Either way, Exit Through the Gift Shop is an unique and well-made movie that captures a once-in-a-lifetime story: it may not have much depth, but it is still a fascinating documentary.