VISIONAIRE presents coverage of the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival with special corespondent Lisa Collins.
THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY Q&A WITH FILMMAKER MARCO PROSERPIO by Lisa Collins
Elusive is his name. Art pranking is his game. Although with a social conscience, of course! Invisibility wraps itself around him, while high visibility is the crux of his powerful, often stunning, politically-charged works. He’s international artworld icon, Banksy — one of the most celebrated and controversial artists of our day. Since his rise to notoriety, questions of access, arrogance, appropriation, valuation, and speaking for the voiceless continue to collide and swirl around his highly-coveted ‘street art’, which only keeps increasing, in commercial value, across the globe.
In Marco Proserpio’s feature directorial debut, THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY, audiences are drawn into an artfully probing journey, where the snatching of Banksy’s street art is at the heart of an interconnected story of intrigue; a global tale that unfolds from Palestine, where, in 2007, Banksy did his controversial thing, once again — yes, painting, lawlessly, on numerous buildings and walls. But over time, his politically charged pieces began to “go missing”?
Filmmaker Proserpio, who spent part of his youth playing in a punk band, shares how “This simple, yet radical action” — of removing a wall — “ended up having different meanings and consequences, in different contexts all around the world.” Particularly in Palestine, where he explains that, “people use graffiti to communicate political ideas.” Full-bodied with imagery of vivid drawings and graffiti, Proserpio’s eye-catching documentary, which centers on Banksy, takes an absorbing look at how, in general, public artworks, that are created illegally — can be legally stolen, sold, and collected. Ironically, the re-appropriation of Banksy’s works is what drives the film’s exploration, although the elusive artist, himself, when not being hailed for his genius, is often being contested for being an appropriator. Proserpio dives, head-first, into the conundrum of banking on Banksy, offering fresh perspectives on the value of street-art, particularly heard from Middle Eastern voices on the margins; while the filmmaker simultaneously reveals a secret international market of stolen walls. Guided by the “soothing voice” of the film’s narrator — rebellious rocker, Iggy Pop — Proserpio’s thoughtful documentary works on numerous curious levels. Of course, it’s only righteous that THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY is World Premiering, in Documentary Competition, at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, in New York City — where breathtaking graffiti street art, and the complicated underground culture surrounding it, has long-defined so much of its legendary identity!
By Lisa Collins
LISA COLLINS: How long did follow this intriguing story — and within that, where was the most unexpected place you ending up filming?
MARCO PROSERPIO: I’ve been following this story for about 6 years. It all started the first time I went to Palestine. When I passed the checkpoint between Jerusalem and Bethlehem I met ‘Walid The Beast’, a Palestinian taxi driver who would somehow become the main character in the film. It was 6 years ago and I didn’t know I was making a documentary yet, at that time.
Throughout, I ended up filming in many places, including: a warehouse full of walls removed from the street, and the top of Bethlehem rooftops watching the wall surrounding the land, as some men in masks were cutting a Banksy piece out of the wall with a chainsaw.
LC: I read that as a youth, your friends were involved in making ‘street art’, were you a part of that? Can you give us a flashback into the excitement of those times?
MP: I wasn’t too involved in that particular scene, to be honest. We were just kids doing things. Some of us, like me, were in punk rock bands that didn’t make any money and played for very few people. Others were covering their faces and writing on trains for the thrill of seeing their name on the passing train the next day. It was all very punk.
So no, I wasn’t really involved in that scene, though I had a lot of respect for these people who were creating art out of sheer pleasure, and were not planning to get into a gallery or turn it into a career.
LC: Whether making it, or collecting it, there’s something about street art, which naturally brings to the surface, conflicting issues of one’s rights (the right to create, to erase, to protest, to sell, etc.) — did the political context of the Palestine/Israel conflict seem to heighten this tension?
MP: The whole story of this film is based around an action: the removal of a wall with a Banksy artwork painted on. This simple yet very radical action ended up having different meanings and consequences in different contexts all around the world. In Palestine, where the context is drastically different from the rest of the world in so many ways, the reaction was very strong.
That’s because the very act of writing on a wall has a strong political meaning in Palestine, where people use graffiti to communicate political ideas and even information, within communities during strikes or demonstrations… In a way this is a story that tries to create a connection between different worlds, contexts and views existing around the world.
LC: Collaborating with the iconic Iggy Pop, what is it, specifically, about his persona and/or music that made you think, “Yes, he shall narrate this story!”
MP: We wanted a voice that was wild and punk. We also wanted somebody who wasn’t directly connected to politics in any way. The farther away the better, actually. Iggy’s name was the first and last to come out. He did all the rest wonderfully. Such a soothing voice.
LC: Speaking of a larger-than-life personality, what was it about Walid “The Beast” Z. that ignited your interest to follow this story?
MP: He was the first guy I met when I passed the checkpoint and entered Palestine. We were just talking about this and that when he told me this weird story of how he removed the entire side of a house which was now a huge chunk of concrete with a Banksy artwork painted on. I looked at him doubtfully. At first, I didn’t believe a word he said, but he was such a lovely guy that we ended up spending more time chatting and eventually he convinced me…
We’ve met quite a few times in the past 6 years, and I can say he’s become a friend now. He’s a big-hearted giant.
LC: Curiously, in Palestine, the donkey (of the Israeli soldier/donkey painting) is interpreted as subversive by some, and yet offensive by others — were you expecting such a vast and radical difference of opinions around Banksy’s statement about the barrier checkpoints?
MP: It’s true, “The Donkey with the Soldier” by Banksy got many people angry in Bethlehem, though it was mainly the older part of the population, so to speak; while the younger generations seemed to understand the irony behind it.
I don’t see this as a “faux pas” by Banksy. It was actually an artwork that somehow gave both foreigners and locals a chance to talk about art and its meaning.
LC: What does it mean to you that THE MAN WHO STOLE BANKSY is debuting and in competition at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City — where the raw, rich and complex legacy of ‘street art’ is undeniable?
MP: It’s such an honor for me. It’s my first feature film and my first festival… The thing is, ever since the very beginning this was a pet project of mine. I started it, all on my own — and slowly got a few longtime friends and collaborators involved. Watching it become a film throughout the years connects me with this project more than any other thing I have ever worked on.