The Director and Producers Talk About Their New Street Art Documentary.
The Banksy show is about to begin again. For those who are not familiar with what that statement implies, you'll definitely be surprised.
Capturing Banksy. Police stuffing B-A-N-K-S-Y balloons in the back of a van on Day 31 of the street artists month-long residency on the streets of New York. (photo © Jaime Rojo)
"Banksy Does New York," a new documentary by director Chris Moukarbel, meticulously culls and artfully arranges the play and the actors for you in just over an hour with new revelations popping up every few minutes -- and you may not believe what you actually missed. But don't feel bad; everyone missed something during the one-month "Better Out Than In" residency of the Brisol-based street artist during October, 2013. Luckily Moukarbel has done the hard work of sifting through the thousands of Instagram posts, Tweets, YouTube videos, and Banksy's own digital clues to deftly tell you the story, or rather, stories.
The latest HBO documentary, which airs November 17th, confronts the conventions of typical documentary making by compiling user-generated digital content, or crowd-sourcing the thousands of individual perspectives that occurred in tandem as the new works were unveiled on the streets of New York's five boroughs. (Full disclosure: We are both interviewed in it.)
"There's no way we could have gotten cameras everywhere even if we were trying and if we wanted to," said Moukarbel at a special screening in Manhattan at HBO's offices last week for many of the "content creators" whose work is woven together to reveal the larger narratives arising from the events.
"No one really knew what Banksy was doing. No one had put a frame around it," says Chris as he describes the process of allowing the stories to tell him and producer Jack Turner what actually happened. "I mean he so expertly used social media," says Turner, "Having an Instagram account from the first day -- he invented a way for communicating his work and created a following for it and created an event that is a work itself."
Aside from the mechanics of the unfolding dramas, "Banksy Does New York" attempts to give many of the actors center stage here where other film makers would have relegated them to the roles of extras. Out of town vloggers drive into the city to record their daily discoveries, bonafide Banksy hunters who pool their clues in real time virtually and race to discover the new piece before it is stolen or vandalized, neighborhood entrepreneurs who charge a fee to onlookers for peeking at the paintings, and even the human stories behind the public heist and subsequent art sale that is arranged for one of the sculptures.
Somehow the elusive street artist pulling strings behind the scenes comes off as a sardonic populist everyman although he probably really is just a flagrant [insert your personal projection here]. By removing himself from the show, everyone else is revealed.
And they are nearly all here too. Like the fictional nightlife doyen Stefon Zolesky on Saturday Night Live might say, "This club has everything"; artists, fans, intellectuals, court jesters, minstrels, charlatans, sideshows, soldiers, police, politicians, a priest, dogs, passion, sweetness, sarcasm, irony, jealousy, chicanery, a Greek chorus, car chases, a few fights, a couple of heartfelt speeches, some arrests, bleating lambs being lead to slaughter.
... And a winking wizard somewhere behind the curtain.
Like we said last year as the month drew to a close in an article entitled Banksy's Final Trick, "No longer asking, 'Who is Banksy,' many strolling New Yorkers this October were only half-kidding when they would point to nearly any scene or object on the street and ask each other, 'Is that a Banksy?'"
We turned the interview tables on director Chris Moukarbel and producer Jack Turner to see how they developed their story for "Banksy Does New York".
Brooklyn Street Art:They say that a documentary filmmaker can't really have a story in mind going in to the project - because the story reveals itself as you go. Did you see the story developing as you met people and looked at video?
Chris Moukarbel: No one had really looked at the residency in its entirety so we felt like archeologists piecing together all these bits of information and trying to create a complete vision of what went down that month. Certain themes began to emerge and it was interesting to find where the work was actually pointing. The locations of each piece appeared random and actually were incredibly important to how you were supposed to see the work. Sometimes you realized that the work itself only served to bring peoples attention to the significance of the location.
Brooklyn Street Art: There are so many moving parts in this story -- the enigmatic artist, the illegal nature of the work, the intersection with social media, the unpredictable nature of the responses. Was this a story that was difficult to get your hands around?
Jack Turner: Good question... the basic idea from the start was simply to relive that month-long circus for those people who were not aware, not in NYC or just missed it. To be honest, we originally thought that a sequential catalogue of the work would feel repetitive - but as we did more research, we found that each of the works created vastly different reactions from the public and they helped us explore all of these themes. We can only draw our own meaning from some of the work but that is when the public reaction becomes part of the work itself -- which is why public art, street art and graffiti exist.
Brooklyn Street Art: Had you had much exposure to the street art and graffiti worlds previous to taking on this project? What surprised you about it that you wouldn't have expected?
Chris Moukarbel: I was never a part of the street art world but I have an art background and a lot of my work was site specific. I would create pieces that were meant to live online or on public access TV, as well as street pieces. It was interesting to get to know more about an art world with its own language -- available in plain view of New Yorkers.
Brooklyn Street Art: What element first attracted your interest in the Banksy story when you heard that he had executed this residency in New York?
Chris Moukarbel: When HBO approached us about making the film I felt like it could be a great archive of an artists work and also a snapshot of the Internet for one month. I love public art and I was interested in the way that Banksy was using the Internet and social media as if it were the street.
Brooklyn Street Art: After seeing "Exit Through the Gift Shop" many people reported feeling like they were more confused than before about Banksy and his story. How would you like people to feel after "Banksy Does New York?"
Jack Turner: Banksy is an incredibly prolific artist and this film covers only one of the many chapters in his career. By remaining anonymous, Banksy takes the focus away from the artist or the source and he puts the focus on the statement and the work. There is a reason that he is the most infamous artist working today, he represents an idea that many people identify with... and he is really funny! I think this film, more than anything, highlights how well he uses social media to his disposal.
Brooklyn Street Art: You must have imagined what a response might be from Banksy to your film. What do you think he will think of this piece?
Jack Turner: It is extremely important in any project that Chris or I do to make sure that we present the whole story in a truthful way. That is why we have had such success accessing user-generated footage. We went from having a one camera crew, as documentaries are often made, to having a thousand cameras throughout the city -- each giving us footage that reflects what really happened. Maybe Banksy will love it, maybe he will hate it -- but the most important thing to us is that he feels like it is a true reflection of what happened over the course of that month.
Brooklyn Street Art: As producers and the director, do you think of yourselves as artists, reporters, sociologists, detectives?
Jack Turner: A couple years ago a friend of mine said that making a documentary is like getting paid (very little) to learn an enormous amount about something. I'll take that.
Chris Moukarbel: I think of myself as a storyteller. In a way, I was still a storyteller when I was making fine art but now I'm using a popular medium that reaches a wider audience.
Banksy Does New York airs November 17 on HBO and is available now on HBO GO.
Director: Chris MoukarbelProducers: Chris Moukarbel, Jack TurnerExecutive producer: Sheila NevinsDirectors of photography: Mai Iskander, Karim RaoulEditor: Jennifer HarringtonProduction companies: Matador Content, Permanent Wave, Home Box OfficeNo rating, 70 minutes
This article is also posted on Brooklyn Street Art.
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