It’s time for my February Thirty Day Challenge! If you want to know how my challenge for January turned out – follow this link!
This month, I have decided to watch one documentary film per week. I am a big fan of true crime and thoroughly enjoyed watching Making a Murderer, Evil Genius, and Brother’s Keeper. I’ve also seen a few health documentaries such as Supersize Me and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead.
Documentaries and programs on the History channel usually got a bad rap from most people in my generation who would prefer to watch the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie (don’t worry, I was one of them). As I’ve aged – gracefully I may add – my taste for nonfiction and real life storytelling has improved. With Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon collectively hosting the archive of practically every documentary ever made (don’t quote me on that), I decided to make up for my adolescent close-mindedness by watching one documentary from every decade since the 80s.
Using Flickchart‘s lists of the highest ranked documentaries of each decade, I have selected 4 documentary films, each of a different genre, to watch this month. I will periodically update this post to share my impression of each film, and to show off the random tidbits of knowledge I have gained from this challenge.
First up is the highest ranked documentary of the 2010s – Exit Through The Gift Shop!
Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010)
I don’t really know exactly what I was expecting from this documentary, but I certainly did not predict that I’d be watching the story of Thierry Guetta, an awkward French street-graffiti artist’s rise to fame in the street-art world. The film was created by another renown graffiti artist – the notorious and elusive Banksy – who with a disguised face and distorted voice chronicles the events that brought life to Guetta’s alter-ego Mr. Brainwash.
At this point, it is necessary for me to add a *spoiler alert* disclaimer. If you haven’t seen this film and are interested in reaching your own conclusions about the meaning of the title, and, quite frankly, Guetta’s artistic talent, then I recommend seeing it for yourself. Although Exit Through the Gift Shop ultimately leaves the audience with more questions than answers, it provides context for my (and many others’) conclusions about Mr. Brainwash and the purpose of the documentary itself.
We are introduced to Thierry Guetta – who can’t seem to sit still – a Los Angeles thrift store owner moonlighting as an amateur filmmaker. Guetta, during a visit with his family in France, becomes fascinated with capturing his graffiti-artist cousin’s nighttime acts of vandalism. Under the pretense of using all of his video footage for a street-art documentary, Guetta then slowly gains favor with the most prominent urban artists in the world, including LA’s Shepard Fairey and the Britain-based Banksy.
Banksy, whose entire gimmick is about being anonymous, claimed that Guetta was the first person he trusted enough to film his artistic process and illegal escapades. When it came time for Guetta to showcase the so-called documentary that featured years of street-art video, it became apparent that he was not a skilled filmmaker and never intended to follow through with the project. You’d think that would be the end of the story. It isn’t.
Annoyed at being deceived, Banksy convinced Guetta to hand over the footage and go back to Los Angeles. In order to keep Guetta away from him while he reworked the film, Banksy tasked Guetta with putting together a small art show in LA. What started as an innocent distraction became a full-blown production – Guetta, now operating under the persona “Mr. Brainwash”, booked a giant studio space and was clearly in over his head. Banksy and Fairey, after hearing Guetta’s pleas for help, provided staff and publicity for the event. Guetta’s show quickly became the talk of the town, and the hype around Mr. Brainwash grew exponentially in the days preceding the show.
The audience never really knows where or how Guetta acquired the art for the show, but we do know that it essentially was a repackaging of Andy Warhol-like concepts. He somehow pulled it off, and tickets for the show sold like hotcakes. Even though Mr. Brainwash’s artistic style is derivative, to this day his pieces still sell for thousands of dollars. Banksy wraps up the documentary with feigned disbelief at and disapproval of Guetta’s overnight success. After all, he unintentionally enabled this wannabe artist and compromised the integrity of street art.
My impression of Exit Through the Gift Shop is essentially based on how believable I consider it to be. A mainstream opinion is that this documentary is itself a ruse, lead and orchestrated by Banksy. The theory is that Banksy used Guetta to create Mr. Brainwash in order to manufacture the public’s excitement about a talentless artist who lacked any kind of individual creativity. If the film was indeed about a “prank” that Banksy pulled on all of us, I’m more inclined to take it with a grain of salt.
To be clear, I do feel that Banksy’s contribution to the rise of Mr. Brainwash was definitely deliberate. I don’t know exactly how much Banksy actively and financially assisted Guetta, but I’m convinced that he was well aware of the magnitude of the show and its inevitable success. Therefore, if Banksy is trying to demonstrate that our society has been brainwashed into accepting all forms of art regardless of originality, then I don’t think his “set-up” actually drives this point home. Alternatively, I believe that Exit Through the Gift Shop does reinforce the idea that recognizable brand names and images (and plenty of money!) can ignite the public’s interest in otherwise forgettable art. But for Banksy to claim that he inadvertently created a monster in Guetta that makes all of us look like artistically-devoid fools, well, I simply don’t buy it.
Check out my mini-review and synopsis of the top documentary in the 2000s decade, Dear Zachary, coming real soon.
Dear Zachary (2008)
Something about the name and premise of this documentary seemed eerily familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. However, within the first five minutes of the film, I recognized the faces of David and Kathleen Bagby and had the sinking realization that I have seen this story before.
Ever since my teenage years, I have been fascinated with true crime; I preferred watching Dateline and 48 Hours over reruns of Friends. The real-life stories featured on these true crime programs were of course horrifying and tragic, despite being narrated by a host with an unnecessarily theatrical voice. I could have very easily heard about the devastating murder of the Bagbys’ son Andrew on one of these shows, but my memories of the case and the victims were far too vivid to have originated from a streamlined episode of 20/20. It turns out that I had watched Dear Zachary a number of years ago, and there is a reason why the story stuck with me as it has with so many others. Beware of spoilers below.
I decided to re-watch Dear Zachary instead of choosing another documentary because I couldn’t bring myself to turn off the television while Andrew’s parents vulnerably recounted the harrowing circumstances of their son’s death. I didn’t want to deny them a voice, especially since I know how this story ends. To say that the resilience and determination of the Bagbys are remarkable would be an understatement.
I’m not going to delve into every detail of this story – it is something better left to the loved ones of the victims in this case, of which there are many. In summary, Andrew Bagby was the charismatic, outgoing only child of David and Kate Bagby who, despite having many friends, struggled with his own loneliness and transition into adulthood. While completing his medical residency at a family practice, Andrew began dating Shirley Turner, an abusive and unstable woman many years his elder. When Andrew attempted to end the relationship, Shirley allegedly shot, killed, and dumped his body in a parking lot. After local police issued a warrant for her arrest, Shirley fled to her hometown in Canada.
The Bagbys were devastated, and justice for their son seemed as elusive as ever. Then, unexpected, yet purposeful, news came – Shirley was pregnant with Andrew’s child. When Zachary Andrew Turner was born, David and Kate were determined to gain custody of their grandson and moved to Canada to begin the arduous legal battle against their son’s alleged murderer. Meanwhile, Andrew’s friend and filmmaker Kurt Kuenne was creating a video diary filled with loved ones’ memories of Andrew for the purpose of someday introducing Zachary to his late father.
For years, the Bagbys patiently waited for the Canadian justice system to incarcerate and extradite Shirley for the murder of Andrew. Meanwhile, Shirley continued to have legal custody of Zachary, and the Bagbys tried to spend as much time with their grandson as possible by remaining on good terms with her. Ultimately, Shirley was released from jail on bail while awaiting trial for Andrew’s murder, and shortly thereafter drowned herself and Zachary in the ocean.
After losing their son and grandson at the hands of the same vicious woman, the Bagbys had lost everything, including their faith in the government. They began advocating for a change in Canadian law, and were successful in passing legislation permitting the courts to deny bail to offenders who pose a risk to a child’s life. Despite the fact that these noble efforts wouldn’t bring back their son or grandson, the Bagbys channeled their grief into positive social change. Kurt Kuenne’s emotional account of David and Kate’s heartbreaking journey is raw, tear-jerking, and infuriating, all elements that make Dear Zachary a standout documentary.
Hoop Dreams (1994)
It seems appropriate that the third documentary for this project would be Hoop Dreams, since March Madness is quickly approaching. And, as a former athlete myself, I of course was excited to hear the story of two young men trying to be the next big names in basketball. Considering that this documentary was made 25 years ago, I already inadvertently knew the ending – these boys did not become the next Michael Jordan. This is also not a film about the adolescent journeys of Lebron James or Kobe Bryant; in fact, the subjects of this documentary are likely unknown to even the most diehard basketball fan.
So, why is this documentary relevant 20 years later? Shouldn’t it just stay back in the 90s where it belongs? Well, even though the fashion and music are clearly outdated, the social issues that permeate the lives of youth in underprivileged communities all across America are still very, very real.
Hoop Dreams follows the high school years of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two African-American teens living in metropolitan Chicago. The audience first sees their talent for basketball while playing in their neighborhood park court. At first glance, they appear energetic, quick, and skilled. In fact, they draw the attention of a scout from the prestigious and predominantly white St. Joseph High School in Westchester, Illinois. St. Joseph has a strong basketball program, with alumni such as NBA player Isaiah Thomas bearing testament to its excellence.
Arthur and William struggle to adjust to the 90 minute daily commute from Chicago to St. Joseph, as well as the rigid and competitive culture of the private school. William impresses the head coach of the basketball team and lands a spot on the Varsity squad as a freshman. Arthur, on the other hand, lacks the refinement and maturity of a top player and is placed on the freshman team to develop his skills.
Within the first year at St. Joseph, Arthur’s family could no longer afford the tuition and he returned to his local high school in Chicago. Meanwhile, William drew from the support of the St. Joseph community and had his tuition and schooling costs covered by a generous donor. At this point in the story, I was expecting to see Arthur’s decline as a student and basketball player contrasted with William’s skyrocketing success in an affluent community. This, however, was not the case. Both young men struggled – Arthur with his parents’ tumultuous relationship and his brother’s death, and William with an injury and unplanned fatherhood. For both, maintaining academic eligibility for competing was an ongoing concern. Regardless of their undeniable talent and access to educational opportunities, William and Arthur still encountered barriers that stood in the way of their dreams.
Even though they were ultimately recruited to play basketball in college – William at Marquette and Arthur at Arkansas State -, neither of them made it to the NBA. In fact, they weren’t even that close. William’s interest and passion for the sport deteriorated over the years, which also meant a decline in his performance. Arthur, despite his energy and obsession for the game, didn’t quite have the talent to gain notoriety as player bound for the NBA. What I found most poignant about this documentary was the realization that this story is not an isolated instance of disappointment, hardship, and unfulfilled dreams; becoming the very best in the world at a sport takes more than simply talent and hard work. It takes the perfect combination of money, a stable home environment, confidence, and perhaps most of all, luck.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
I love music regardless of the era it came from. One of my all-time favorite bands is Pink Floyd which, without totally aging myself, was way before my time. That being said, I am extremely grateful for the technology of the 60s and 70s that made it possible for me to enjoy such relics of the past.
Although I’m mostly poking fun at my millennial-ness, I have finally reached a decade in my documentary challenge that I was not alive in. The top documentary of the 80s was Stop Making Sense, a film about the band Talking Heads. I’m not very familiar with Talking Heads’ music, but I was hoping this documentary would offer some of the same excitement and drama as the recent Queen/Freddie Mercury biopic, Bohemian Rhapsody. It turns out that Stop Making Sense was purely a concert documentary, so I simply watched and listened to a Talking Heads live performance for an hour and a half.
Despite being slightly let down that I didn’t learn anything about Talking Heads, their band history, or their societal impact, I still enjoyed bopping my head to some of their recognizable hits such as Burning Down the House. Otherwise, there isn’t much else for me to say about the last documentary of February’s challenge.
Final Thoughts (2019)
All in all, I really enjoyed watching these documentaries this month. I ended up with an Amazon Prime Documentary membership for $2.99/month, which is a pretty good deal for access to virtually every documentary ever made. If anything, this project has incentivized me to seek out more documentaries. Particularly, Exit Through the Gift Shop and Hoop Dreams reminded me that I could venture into genres outside of true crime and actually enjoy other content. I won’t be reviewing any more documentaries for the moment, but if I happen to watch one that I find particularly intriguing I’ll be sure to share my thoughts. See you in March for my next challenge!