The Man Who Stole Banksy: art as politics

The documentary questions the effect of Banksy's piece on Israel's West Bank separation wall.

In the streets of Bethlehem, political comments are spray-painted on the walls: a dove wearing a bulletproof vest, holding out an olive branch, a red laser aimed at its chest; a soldier throwing a flower bouquet like a hand grenade.

Italian director Marco Proserpio’s debut feature, The Man Who Stole Banksy, focuses on ‘Donkey Documents,’ a controversial piece of street art that Banksy painted on the separation wall between Israel and the West Bank in 2007. The painting, depicts a heavily armored Israeli soldier checking the identity papers of a donkey. The meaning is unclear—perhaps Banksy meant to mock the identity cards issued by the Israeli government. But to Palestinians, ‘donkey’ is an insult. Not long after, the section of the wall featuring ‘Donkey Documents’ was removed from its place in Manger Square, Bethlehem.

Proserpio tracks the painting, from when it was removed to when it was sold on eBay for $100,000, following its journey through Copenhagen, London, and Bologna. The film then swerves into a series of debates on the commodification and appropriation of art, questioning whether or not the painting actually assisted the Palestinian people. Some wonder whether Banksy could have helped by donating money, or at least by painting on the Israeli side of the wall. Others appreciate Banksy for “shining a spotlight” on the struggles of the Palestinians and urge him to “keep on”.

Much of the documentary consists of ‘talking heads’, from artists to legal advisers, local merchants to historians, anthropologists to politicians. They discuss whether putting pieces of street art in galleries, to preserve an otherwise ephemeral art form, is really theft. Some argue that it is wrong to disregard the intention of the artist—Banksy chose a street wall, not a gallery. And some say that it is wrong to profit from the commodification of what ought to be free and public art.

Proserpio breaks up the interview with historical footage of conflict and recent clips of graffiti artists at work. Run-down neighbourhoods are juxtaposed with sophisticated auction houses and sleek white-walled art galleries, highlighting how the debate takes place across vastly different locales. The dozens of interviews and locations shots make for poignant vignettes but are ultimately disjointed.

A balance of Western and Palestinian voices are intertwined throughout the film. Much of the input and debate comes from Western figures, but Proserpio manages to balance this with the sheer potency of the Palestinian voices. The cinematography steadily maintains their presence through dolly shots of street musicians, singing and rapping in Arabic.

Proserpio evidently covers many important issues. However, his ambition to tackle too many large topics risks an overworked narrative. The film grapples with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict well, but the larger message often loses it punch. You may find yourself struggling to define precisely what the film is about—the reality of everyday life in Bethlehem, the commodification of art, a privatisation of public space, Western colonialism in art? Proserpio would have done well to dovetail the material to create a greater sense of purpose.

Nevertheless, The Man Whole Stole Banksy successfully questions the power of art to comment on contemporary political issues.

The Man Who Stole Banksy will be screening at the Palestinian Film Festival on Thursday.