In Banksy Most Wanted, world-premiering in Tribeca Spotlight Documentary, Aurélia Rouvier and Seamus Haley get to grips with the phenomenon that is Banksy, a genius to some, a Robin Hood-type saviour to others or, to his detractors, a one-man corporate juggernaut who should be unmasked toute suite.
If the documentary Banksy Most Wanted was a novel, then you’d be reading a page-turner, and an unputdownable one at that. But as much as the filmmakers appreciate their elusive subject, their film retains a commendable sense of balance, remaining both fair and equitable to its contributors, whether pro- or anti-Banksy.
In the film we meet artworld insiders (some palatable, some smug) who wax lyrical about Banksy’s every move, and a general public (less polished, more honest) who simply adore him. There are journalists who are desperate to reveal his true identity and there are collaborators who are equally desperate to keep that identity a top secret. There are baddies, such as dealer Robin Barton (who refers to himself as a latter-day Sheriff of Nottingham, the nemesis of Robin Hood) who sent in a team of builders to remove a wall bearing a new Banksy mural, and there are the good people of Folkestone who fight tooth and nail to have it returned.
When it comes to attitudes and opinions, Banksy obviously cuts a binary figure.
“Remaining anonymous, Banksy has allowed people to claim his work for him, and to project [onto] his mystery,’ says co-director Rouvier. “For some of them, his invisibility is a space for fantasies, an invitation to identify. For others, it is an hypocrisy. By performing in public space, and doing stunts as he does, Banksy is looking for publicity, and it is the reason why they want to unmask him.”
“This artistic Cluedo is now part of who Banksy is,” she adds. “And it was an attractive entry [point] for us to study his character and work, each investigation revealing a facet of the artist: his commitment to environmental, social or political causes, his links with the music scene, his entrepreneurial side. And the desire of many fans to keep him secret tells also something about the strength of his myth in our society so used to exposure and ‘transparency’.”
It’s equally obvious that the artist is a source of acute fascination for filmmakers whose documentary is part detective story, part analysis and (in large part) a declaration of gratitude to him for upgrading our lives with his pranks and his cynicism (and sometimes his optimism too), and for making our streets a lot less…pedestrian.
“The idea of the documentary is to show how he is truly a social phenomenon,” comments Haley. “What fascinated me about this artist from the beginning is how each of his artworks constitutes a happening: he paints in the street and sees how the inhabitants of the neighborhood live with it. Is the artwork sold? Protected with plexi-glace? Recovered by the city? Painted over after a few days, like any other graffiti? Each story is unique, and depends on people’s reactions, hence our intention to have a wide range of testimonies.”
One of the most fascinating face-offs (not alas, within the same space, but achieved via judicious editing) is between Steve Lazarides, who was Banksy’s agent between 1997 and 2008 and who retains a fierce loyalty to the artist, and dealer Barton, whose arrogance, at least as presented in the film, is jaw-dropping.
Lazarides reveals a small part of the Banksy modus operandi, how wearing a hi-visibility jacket renders you anything but visible. He also states how the years with Banksy were “the best years of our lives. We lived like kings without any rules.”
Meanwhile Barton compensates for his earlier failure to spot Banksy’s potential (when prices were low but sell-on profits were potentially astronomical) by sending in the bulldozers to grab the Folkstone mural, referring to protesters as “middle-class, working-class, smalltown folk… suddenly harridans and monsters screaming abuse.”
Lazarides’ comment on the smash-and-grab business is economical (and very Bristol): “a very 21st Century, self-centred, narcissistic thing to do… and they should be punished… corporally… death.”
“From a certain point of view, I guess he’s the same kind of character as Banksy. They started together, they must have had points in common. Mischief is one of them,” says
Haley of Lazarides. “It has been several years since they parted ways and I have the impression that for Steve, this period of collaboration is still his business. He has as much to lose as Banksy and as he says so well [about revealing Banksy’s identity]: ‘it is like telling a small child that Santa Claus does not exist’.”
The film presents three theories as to the artist’s true identity, all of which seem to have merit, but they also serve to open up further questions as to whether Banksy may (or may not) be a collective, and not just a sole operative. To what extent do/did the filmmakers themselves want to know the answer to the riddle?
“Being a reserved person, anonymity is a fantasy for me, and has always attracted me,” observes Rouvier. “I personally love the idea of the mystery man who passes art out, just around the corner for everybody to enjoy. Probably because of the overflow of ego stories we are confronted to. It feels good not to know everything.”
And Haley?: “This story endures because we do not know the identity of the artist, it is exciting and we should not forget that the imagination is always more creative than reality,” he concludes.