'Gift': Film Review

Matson Films
Brings philosophical issues to life.
10/11/2019

Robin McKenna's documentary, based on Lewis Hyde's classic book 'The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,' explores the parallels between creativity and gift-giving.

You'll think the world is a better place after seeing Robin McKenna's documentary based on Lewis Hyde's enduring 1983 book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World. Inspired by the book's exploration of the connection between making art and the act of giving, the film profiles four contemporary examples from around the world. Cynics may scoff (and at times, to be fair, it's hard not to agree with them during some of the doc's more fanciful moments), but for many people, Gift will live up to its title. 

One of the more fascinating subjects is Metropoliz Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere, described as "the first inhabited museum on Earth." Formerly a sausage factory, the Roman museum is now home to some 200 migrant families, who co-exist with the art being exhibited there on a rotating basis. The institution is a minor miracle, considering the scarcity of affordable real estate in the Italian city, and is in constant danger of being encroached upon by government and commercial interests. But the positive publicity and good will it has engendered has so far enabled it to thrive.

Another story involves the concept of potlatch (not to be confused with potluck), a custom practiced by Indigenous natives of the Pacific Northwest. The word refers to an elaborate ceremony in which possessions of value are given away (ironically, to enhance one's prestige, among other reasons). We watch as artist Marcus Alfred, a chief of the Kwakwaka'wakw tribe, prepares for an upcoming ceremony in which he will give away everything he has created, including an elaborate totem pole he's carving especially for the occasion.

We're introduced to Michelle "Smallfry" Lessans, a beekeeper who devises a plan to utilize her skills at the annual Burning Man event in Nevada, where gift giving is strongly promoted and buying or trading things is banned. Lessans creates an elaborate "bee car" to dispense honey and various other bee-related products, as well as rides, to whoever wants them.

Finally, there's artist Lee Mingwei, who is shown overseeing an elaborate museum show centered on gift-giving. Visitors are encouraged to take free flowers, but only on the condition that they give them away on their way home. In the installation "Sonic Blossom," singers offer private musical performances to patrons, some of whom are not entirely receptive. One of the film's funnier moments shows a beatific-looking female singer approaching a young woman and asking, "May I offer you a gift of song?" The flustered young woman stammers, "Oh, my God, I'm good," adding, "I'm sorry."

Mingwei, who speaks in the soft, soothing cadences of a young Mister Rogers, proves one of the documentary's most compelling figures. In "The Mending Project," visitors are encouraged to bring in damaged clothing, which volunteer menders will fix at no charge. "I tell them, whenever they put on this cloak, they are demigods," Mingwei says about one garment.

Quotes from Hyde's book are showcased on intertitles throughout the film, including "The gift moves toward its empty place" and "Whatever we have been given is supposed to be given away, not kept; the gift must stay in motion." (Your appreciation of the aphorisms will necessarily vary.)

It can't be denied that Gift occasionally borders on being too New Agey for its own good, and, let's face it, its entire ethos can be boiled down to the simple phrase "Pay it forward." But don't be surprised if you're compelled to perform an unexpected act of generosity soon after seeing it.

Production companies: Gaudete Films, Intuitive Pictures
Distributor: Matson Films
Director-screenwriter: Robin McKenna
Producers: Ina Fichman, Robin McKenna
Directors of photography: Mark O'Fearghail, Nicolas Canniccioni
Editor: Mahi Rahgozar
Composer: Serge Nakauchi Pelletier

90 minutes