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Gilbey on Film: rebel? Banksy doesn't know the meaning of the word

The graffiti artist's new film is more PR than politics.

This is a week to consider absent friends. Some are absent after goofing around in class -- that would be Nicolas Chartier, one of the producers of The Hurt Locker, who was barred from attending the Oscars ceremony after circulating emails badmouthing rival nominees.

Others are absent through no fault of their own -- such as Jafar Panahi, the great Iranian director who has moved freely between appealing whimsy (The White Balloon), barely suppressed outrage (The Circle) and gruelling realism (Crimson Gold, which is screening at this month's Human Rights Watch film festival). His last film, Offside, about the attempts of female football supporters to attend matches from which they are banned, even showed traces of Dario Fo-like satire.

Panahi was arrested last week in Iran, along with his wife and daughter, in an attempt to subdue advocates of the opposition Green movement. This is not the first time the director's movements have been inhibited. US immigration once kept him shackled in a cell at JFK Airport after he refused to be photographed and fingerprinted; he was also arrested last summer in Iran, and had his passport revoked. (Panahi was refused permission to participate in a forum on Iranian cinema at this year's Berlin Film Festival.)

Then there are those whose apparent absence is really only a form of self-promotion. The graffiti artist Banksy appears in his own film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, in which he delivers his self-consciously deadpan, would-be enigmatic musings in an electronically filtered voice that might be an attempt to make him into the street-punk Stephen Hawking.

Watching Banksy wallowing in ostentatious anonymity, I can't have been the only audience member to be reminded of Peter Cook as Greta Garbo, driving through crowded streets in a convertible and barking into a loudhailer: "I vant to be alone."

Like most people who cultivate their own disappearance, from teenage runaways to washed-up Reggie Perrins, Banksy wants most of all to be seen, loved and craved. Despite expending most of his energy preserving his anonymity, his worst nightmare would be to go unseen.

Time for a rebrand

By removing himself from view, Banksy hopes to stoke our interest in him. Even his harshest critic couldn't claim he has failed. But if his goal was to become "like a robe pontifical,/Ne'er seen but wonder'd at", then where does he go from here?

Some have seen Exit Through the Gift Shop as another piece in the Banksy puzzle, adding nothing to our sum of knowledge about him, but it looks to me more like a bid for survival, a rebranding, a cry from the sidelines of "Yoo-hoo! I'm still here! You haven't forgotten me, have you?"

The film purports to tell the story of Thierry Guetta, a Frenchman living in Los Angeles who documents the street art movement and becomes a facilitator for Banksy. After botching the film he was supposed to be making about street art, Guetta branches out into art himself, staging a hopelessly naive and overambitious exhibition.

I wouldn't claim to know who Guetta is, or if he even exists. (My closest contact with street art is the Neighbourhood Watch sticker in my living-room window. And even that was left there by the previous tenant.) And the whiff of mockumentary around the film actively discourages our serious engagement; Guetta's resemblance to the comedian Rob Schneider makes me particularly sceptical.

But authenticity isn't the issue. What bothers me about Exit Through the Gift Shop is that it requires nothing of the audience except complicity. There's already something dopey about the largely unquestioning, middle-class deification of Banksy, and the film plays up to that.

At no point does it interrogate Banksy's work or motives, and the artist's own self-satisfied pronouncements explicitly deter us from doing so: this is a film that upholds Banksy's integrity by discrediting Guetta. It sits in judgement, and invites us to do the same.

Sure, the Frenchman comes across as a buffoon and a bandwagon-chaser, but the viewers who laugh obsequiously at Banksy's sly put-downs of him shouldn't believe themselves to be anything but tiny cogs in the Banksy PR machine.

As I watched the film, my thoughts kept drifting back to Panahi, and the way in which his work persuades us to interrogate our place in society. It's a far cry from Exit Through the Gift Shop, which leaves us only with a choice between being spoilsports or saps.

Ryan Gilbey blogs for Cultural Capital every Tuesday. He is also the New Statesman's film critic.