There are enough interesting ideas in Marco Proserpio’s The Man Who Stole Banksy to fill two or three fascinating documentaries about the legality of street art, the impact of Western street artists invading minority cultural spaces, and the degradation of life in occupied Palestine. Featuring a robust series of talking heads from such diverse fields as art, law, and international politics, it takes great pains to objectively engage even the most politically heated of its subjects. And hey, for some inexplicable reason it’s narrated by none other than punk rocker Iggy Pop! For a brief moment it seems the film might be the perfect counterpart to Banksy’s Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), a fascinating look at the social implications of street art that nevertheless skirts the messier political implications of defacing public spaces in the service of politically charged artwork. Alas, the films falls flat, drunkenly staggering from one topic to the next, unsure how to string them all together.
At first, it seems like a character study of Walid the Beast, a Palestinian taxi driver and body builder who hatched a scheme to steal Banksy’s notorious Donkey Documents—a silhouette mural of an Israeli soldier checking the passport of a donkey at a security checkpoint—following the British artist’s unexpected spree throughout Bethlehem in 2007. What Banksy didn’t know when he put the mural up was that the word “donkey” is a local slur for Palestinians, meaning that his well-intentioned piece was the equivalent of setting up a burning cross in front of the headquarters of the NAACP. Naturally incensed, Walid gathered some friends together to remove the piece by literally cutting the four-ton slab of concrete on which it was painted out of the wall. But then Walid had an idea: if Banksy is such a big deal in the Western art world, why not sell it and use the money to help his impoverished family? So he had the piece shipped to Copenhagen where it was unsuccessfully auctioned. The piece now sits in a museum somewhere in Europe, unseen, unloved, unrecognized. And Walid? Nothing has changed for him.
What did happen was that the removal and auctioning of Donkey Documents lit a firestorm in the art world about the legality and morality of removing street art—artwork deliberately intended to be shared by the public in public spaces—and selling it to private collections. We meet Banksy’s former manager Steve Lazarides who insists it’s theft; we meet Stephan Keszler, a collector of street art who insists it’s just good business sense. Then we get history lessons: we learn about the history of native Palestinian graffiti, the sole form of political protest available for Palestinians during the First Intifada and how appalled many of them were when Banksy and his friends glibly sprayed their art all over their neighborhoods. We learn about the simmering tensions between Orthodox Christians in Bethlehem, the struggling Muslim community, and the occupying Israeli Jews. And sprinkled throughout it all are brief callbacks to Walid, sometimes an interview, sometimes a curious montage of him bodybuilding to inspirational music. But none of it successfully coheres. The material is too disparate in tone, too disparate in style, too disparate in focus. This is one documentary that needed one last pass through the editing room.