While “The Man Who Stole Banksy” focuses on the theft of one graffiti-covered section of the security border between Israel and the West Bank, this documentary playing at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival also raises ideas about how the art world works, and who benefits.
At first the film is about Walid the Beast, a Palestinian taxi driver and amateur bodybuilder who removed the street art of the British graffitist known as Banksy by carving it right out of the wall. (Banksy is known for his political art created in public spaces.) Then it branches out into the world of street art, stealing and selling, commercialization, Palestinian street art, capitalism and colonialism.
The documentary follows the flow of a human conversation: starting on one topic and ending up somewhere tangential, interrupted by digressions and transitional clips of Palestinian musicians. It seems the film’s editors didn’t storyboard this elaborate tale of art that traveled from Bethlehem to London to Los Angeles. Or maybe they did, but finally settled on a congested though illuminating series of interviews with U.S. and European art collectors, dealers and anthropologists, as well as Palestinian locals and artists.
As much as Banksy understood the context of his art here — placing something that taunts Israel for its border on the border itself — he also unintentionally insulted the very people he was trying to defend. The graffiti shows Israel Defense Forces soldiers checking the ID of a donkey as it attempts to pass through the border. Intended to mock Israel’s strict security along the divider, it was offensive to some Palestinians for whom “donkey” is a common slur.
For a much broader reason, Walid does not like Banksy so much: “The wall is still here,” he says. Yet others, including the mayor of Bethlehem, treat Banksy as a hero.
Two Palestinian street artists, meanwhile, note that IDF soldiers have criminalized spray-paint.
“If you live in a conflict zone, anything can be used as a weapon,” one says. “It’s not killing, but it raises awareness. It’s part of the fight. They have to see it.”
While all of this might seem like a diversion from the topic at hand — the Banksy story and the broader story of stolen public art sold for profit worldwide — perhaps director Marco Proserpio is highlighting the differences between a world-renowned graffiti artist and local street artists struggling to get by. While Banksy can vanish back to England or New York City, Palestinian artists do not have this privilege, and receive less recognition.
The film ultimately becomes less about Banksy and more about the ethical dilemma of stealing street art, especially in cases like this when it’s in a “dangerous area.” Is it OK to remove artwork from its intended location even if that means preserving it?
In London, where Banksy’s stolen donkey piece is on display in a posh shopping mall, “Banksy in New York” author Ray Mock points out that there is a difference “between preserving and commercializing.”
Asks New York art dealer Stephan Keszler, who has sold some of the stolen works: “If Banksy made something on your wall, wouldn’t you sell it, make money and guarantee preservation?”
Back in the West Bank, we get the art thief’s take.
“This is our dream, to be free without this f–king wall,” Walid says. “I say to Banksy, you are not very famous in Palestine. Don’t come and paint on this wall and say this is good for Palestinians, good for Americans, good for anybody. No. Support the poor people, that’s enough.”
Though the film may at times confuse viewers with its wandering style, it also will prompt new thinking about how political art is viewed. The film ends on an up note, with Iggy Pop narrating: “[Banksy] invites us all to reflect on the consequences of this decision, while leading the way to the possible future of street art — creating something one can buy, but cannot take home, away from where it’s meant to be.”
This conversation will not end with the film, as the barrier still stands on the West Bank. Walid, for one, still hopes it will fall.