Tom RostonIndependent journalist Tom Roston checks in and writes about the world of documentaries in his column, Doc Soup.

You can follow Tom on Twitter @DocSoupMan.

‘Exit Through the Gift Shop’: Is it a Doc Or Not?

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Exit Through the Gift Shop poster

To paraphrase: If it walks like a doc and it quacks like a doc, then it must be a doc. . . Right?

Exit Through the Gift Shop has been running roughshod with this notion, tripping on it, but nevertheless catapulting forward, ever since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January. And after its remarkably successful theatrical life, grossing $3 million and counting, it is entering an awards season which showered the film with nods from Britain’s prestigious Grierson Trust, the Independent Documentary Awards, the Independent Spirit Awards and a place on the Academy Awards shortlist of fifteen documentaries that could be nominated for Best Documentary of the year.

All of which piqued my interest so I wrote a story about the film and the phenomenon for the Los Angeles Times last week. I wrote the piece as an objective journalist without an interest in the matter but here I can admit the following: “What the heck is going on with this movie?!?!?!”

There’s been this whole rumor mill that the documentary is not really a documentary, but is instead an elaborately created film that is made to seem like a genuine documentary. One point of my story was that all of this unknown is great for selling a film (although it can backfire, as was the case with similarly mysterious Catfish), but when it comes to actually winning an Oscar for Best Documentary, it could trip on itself.

I partly did the story because I wanted to get closer to the truth. Well, here’s what I can tell you. I spoke with producer Jaimie D’Cruz, editor Chris King and sales agent John Sloss, and they all spoke to me with the most genuine-sounding sincerity that the film is exactly what it seems to be: that Thierry Guetta started shooting footage of street artists and that Banksy took that footage and created a better film out of it, including the filming of Guetta’s own rise to fame in the street art world. I couldn’t penetrate these three guys’ sincerity. All I can say is that they seemed genuine. King said he’d never be part of a fraud. Sloss said he’d feel “compromised.” D’Cruz went in circles trying to break down the philosophical conundrum of asserting something that is real.

But, still, every day (in fact, this morning), I run into people who believe that the film is a ruse. A great one, one that asks the right questions and one that makes us think of art and film and authorship in a way that is vital. Just recently, noted film critic at New York magazine, David Edelstein, put the film on his Top Ten list of 2010, and wrote that he thinks that it is probably a fabrication by Banksy.
But the question of whether Exit Through the Gift Shop is a non-fiction film or fictional retelling of non-fictional elements goes unanswered. On one side, you have the filmmakers who say it is legit. On the other, you have the audience and critics who say it probably isn’t, but that’s cool.

I find this all maddening because I’d like to know. And I thought by doing this article, I’d know. But I don’t. Not for sure. I’d say I’m 60 percent sure it is what it says it is, and 40 percent sure it’s not. If that sort of conclusion bothers you, I’m with you.

Tom Roston
Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He comes to us as a ten-year veteran of Premiere magazine, where he was a Senior Editor, and where he wrote the column, Notes from the Dream Factory. Tom was born and raised in New York City. He graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom has also written for The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, GQ, New York, Elle and other publications. Tom's favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi - Godfrey Reggio 2. Hoop Dreams - Steve James 3. The Up series - Michael Apted 4. Crumb - Terry Zwigoff 5. Capturing the Friedmans - Andrew Jarecki