'Saving Banksy': Film Review

Courtesy of Parade Deck Films
A street-art doc with a higher than usual interest in cultural ethics.

Among the profiteers and outlaws, one man tries to preserve a piece of street art for the public's benefit in Colin M. Day's art-doc.

In the publishing world, street art has proven to be profitable fodder: Artists create the colorful work for free, and since it's all illegal, can't take action when you go out with a camera and turn their labor into a book you then copyright. The movement, and in particular its anonymous standard-bearer Banksy, is proving equally useful to documentarians: Colin M. Day's new Saving Banksy is the second doc in less than a year to find a story worth telling about the eponymous prankster. Day's debut succeeds in part thanks to its modest scope, viewing the street-art phenomenon through an attempt to rescue one of its highly perishable creations for the public good; scene-savvy audiences will appreciate it, though its largest audience will be on video.

When Banksy's Exit Through the Gift Shop opened in San Francisco in 2010, he skipped the traditional interviews with local press and instead gifted the city with a handful of attention-getting illegal murals, painted in secret as is his wont. (Reportedly, he got permission for one of them from shop owners.) As usual, many were quickly defaced by less creative vandals, but one hard-to-reach painting, a couple of stories up in the Haight district, survived long enough for an art collector to cut it off the wall.

Others have chopped Banksy works off of buildings, doors and barriers in order to sell them, a practice that leaves the street-art community indignant. (Our narrator is shocked by "paintings — removed from public places, without the artists' permission," conveniently ignoring the irony that most were put on buildings whose owners didn't consent, either.) But Brian Greif didn't want to sell the image of a rat wearing a socialist cap and wielding a fat-tip marker: He wanted to give it to a museum.

Greif, an exec producer here, spent months negotiating with the owners of the hotel whose wood-plank siding Banksy had defaced; unsurprisingly, everybody affected by the preservation attempt wanted some cash once they learned of the vandal's fame. We watch as Greif finally oversees the board-by-board extraction of the mural, wraps each plank up gently, and stores the whole thing in his closet while he tries to find a home for it.

Two years pass before Greif is able to show the work to the public, after having both learned how skittish major museums are about un-authenticated street art and seen how private art dealers play along with his altruistic plans in order to increase the value of their own holdings. At one point, he complains that while collectors have offered up to three quarters of a million dollars for the rat, he can't give the thing away to the institutions he'd like to display it.

Day pairs this narrative with interviews in which several other street artists, chiefly the typography-obsessed Ben Eine, discuss the strange motivations and ethics surrounding art that is almost by definition transgressive. The discussion isn't deep enough to truly weigh the pleasure such art gives a community versus the rights of property owners who unwillingly provide the "canvas." But it certainly steers us toward the view that, in arguments where everyone may be at least a little bit in the wrong, a middleman who makes millions by privatizing work that was given to the public for free is the least sympathetic character of all.


Distributor: Parade Deck Films

Production companies: Boros Tarrolly Greif Nikolic, 2:32 AM Projects, Regime Seventy Two, Colin M. Day Films

Director-Director of photography: Colin M. Day

Screenwriters: Eva Boros, Paul Polycarpou, Mike Tarrolly

Producers: Eva Boros, Kevin Zinger, Brian Greif, Mike Tarrolly, Paul Polycarpou

Editors: Mike Tarrolly, Albert Lopez


69 minutes