Chris Moukarbel, Director of ‘Banksy Does New York’

HBO Documentary Chronicles Street Artist’s Big Apple Takeover

Nov 17, 2014 Web Exclusive
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In October 2013, the anonymous British street artist known as Banksy announced a month-long New York residency named “Better Out Than In.” For 31 days, Banksy unveiled one new work per day spread out across the city’s five boroughs. Little advance notice was given about any individual piece; instead, Banksy offered hints at each work’s location through social media outlets. This resulted in a month-long, city-spanning scavenger hunt, where fans and followers rushed madly to see the pieces before they were defaced by rival graffiti taggers, painted over by unhappy business owners, or outright stolen by thieves looking to cash in on a big payday.

HBO’s new Banksy Does New York chronicles these 31 days of madness from the perspectives of New Yorkers who were at the heart of the event. Filmmaker Chris Moukarbel crowd-sourced footage from YouTube and social media to recreate the craziness of Bansky’s month-long scavenger hunt across the Big Apple.

We spoke to the director about the film.

Austin Trunick [Under the Radar]: You weren’t actually in New York during the Banksy takeover. Where were you at the time?

Chris Moukarbel: I had just moved to Los Angeles about eight months before that. It was interesting because I had just left New York, and I was from the northeast originally, anyway. I had just made this departure, but I was being pulled back to New York. It was kind of nice. I got to spend a lot of time there while I was making the film, sort of getting to say goodbye to the city. I was seeing a lot of parts of the city I’ve never been to, because following Banksy’s work took me all over the city and through all of the boroughs. This was kind of a love letter to the city, for me, at least.

How aware were you of what was going on with Banksy in New York while you were away?

A little bit. I was catching stuff in the national news, but that wouldn’t have been that much; I wasn’t getting into the local news stuff. We did start making the film about two weeks after Banksy left. HBO approached me about making the movie … They felt that because of prior work that I had done, both on my own and with them, writing a story that exists in the public space online—which was sort of the concept of this film—they approached me about making it.

The problem of not being there to shoot it presented this other solution, which was essentially crowd-sourcing footage from all of the New Yorkers that were there and were tracking him. And to be honest, if I had been there to shoot, I wouldn’t have been able to make it to all of the locations with a camera, anyway. It was a moving target. It always made sense to access this massive, online archive that regular New Yorkers had been contributing to.

That sort of answers my next question. This isn’t you first film using crowd-sourced footage; how much did that factor in to you being selected to document this event after the fact?

I also have an art background: I was a video artist and a conceptual artist, and I made a lot of public works. To some extent that might have played into it, being that it was a film about an artist.

Stylistically, it’s really something I’m inspired by: this idea of being able to tell a story using internet footage and social media in a way that feels natural to how we use it every day. I think that if you’re going to make a documentary or tell a story now, it’s hard to overlook the fact that so much of our lives and the stories are also playing out online, in virtual spaces. Half of the day I’m staring at my phone; so many of my conversations are through texts or social media. If you were to take a snapshot of what my day looked like, it would probably look very much like our film.

Can you walk me through how you searched for your footage? I imagine you spent a lot of time just combing Instagram and YouTube.

It’s funny, because it’s a really straight-forward process. We were really just using hashtags. This was a little different than what I did with my previous film, Me at the Zoo, because that was more about searching YouTube and was a little more associative. I wasn’t looking for one, particular subject; I was kind of weaving a story together. It was more a broad portrait of the rise of YouTube or the Internet celebrity.

This was about a specific person in a specific month, so it was kind of easy. You could search #banksy, or #banksyNY, or #betteroutthanin, and you were immediately directed to that massive, online archive. It’s kind of interesting for me because I thought it as a snapshot of what one corner of the internet looked like that month.

I worked with other people, researchers who helped me cull all of that media. From there, we just started editing. Then, eventually, once something was working, we’d reach out to the person to see if we could use it.

What sort of permission was needed to use the material? Did anyone say no?

Nobody said “no.” Some people never responded. I’m also doing a series for HBO that uses a similar style. I’m doing this process for a sex show; it’s a re-launch of HBO’s Real Sex. It’s kind of a picture of sex culture in America now, which is very much online. It’s sort of a similar process, where we approach people asking them to use their online footage. With the Banksy stuff we were paying people for each clip that we use. The only small issue was that sometimes people don’t check their messages. I’d get messages from people with Me at the Zoo or the sex show, and it’s months later, and they’ll be like, “Oh my god, we missed this. We really want to be a part of it.” But if I’m not able to get in touch with them by the time we finish editing, I just can’t include it.

The thing about when people are posting their things online, they usually want as many people as possible to see it. So it’s like they’re already halfway there, in terms of the collaboration. There’s a desire for a public audience to see whatever it is they’ve posted, so it’s almost as if you’re meeting them half way, as opposed to traditional, documentary filmmaking where somebody has archival footage, but maybe it’s part of their private collection or it’s family footage or something that’s private. You have to convince them to let you include it. Online, everyone is already looking for an audience.

What sort of discoveries did you make along the way? I imagine the documentary was probably reshaped in your head as you found the material you wanted to use.

Like a lot of people, I didn’t know what a full picture of that month would look like. People were tracking individual pieces, but nobody had put a larger frame around the entire residency at that point. It was interesting to be in a position to look at the bigger project, and to look at some of the broader themes that Banksy was getting at.

One of the discoveries, for me, was that it wasn’t always about the individual work. Sometimes the piece was irrelevant; it was about where it was placed. A lot of it was about Banksy directing people’s attention from one location to the next, and often the location was charged or had some other kind of meaning.

For example, in Willets Point, there were these small businesses that were slated to be razed. The whole area is going to be turned into shopping and parking for Citi Field. The local community has been embroiled in legal battles with the city to at least relocate those businesses, which was part of the original plan that was promised to them when they signed off on the renovation and then that plan was pulled. The citizens were then basically told that they just had to move. It was something a lot of New Yorkers wouldn’t keep track of, it just wouldn’t affect their lives that much. But when Banksy placed a sculpture right there, a lot of people who were showing up just thought it was a random junk yard. After a little bit more research, they would realize it was actually a very intentional spot. Maybe it really didn’t do much to contribute to the cause of the people living there, but at the very least it did bring a little bit of attention to something that maybe people weren’t really thinking about.

Out of all of the pieces Banksy made during this residency, did you find any particularly hard to cover, based on the amount of footage you found?

I would say with the first piece there was almost no footage, because it had been allegedly painted over by the building’s owner within hours. People weren’t really able to get to it in time. That’s one example of where, in the early stages, New Yorkers weren’t really quick. Banksy was sort of training the public on how to find his work, and that happened over the course of the month. The way his project gained momentum, by the end with the last piece there were hundreds of people there. People had figured out how to communicate with each other using social media and give each other tips. There was this vibrant conversation happening online where people would alert each other to where the pieces were and share clues. But that really was a growing snowball; the first week or so it was much harder for people to figure out where the pieces were, so there was less documentation [of them.]

You’ve mentioned that Banksy chimed in at one point to give his blessing and input. What sort of feedback did you get?

A lot of them were notes about clarifying certain things. Not so much to give away his intentions; he never got into the meaning of anything. It was more about accuracy, which was helpful because no one had made a [larger] work about the whole residency. We were at the front line of that, so it was helpful to hear directly from him about certain things.

The only stylistic note that I got from him, which is kind of funny, was the opening title sequence song. For whatever reason, he chose that song and recommended it. I tried it and it worked really well. He really wanted to hear that song at the beginning, and I happened to really like the way it worked.

Was it the Temples track [“Keep In the Dark”] that Banksy suggested?

Yeah, exactly. He sent over the title and the artist, and I had to look it up. I was using a song with kind of a similar vibe. Originally I had a track from this band called The Make-Up, this D.C. punk band, and it had this kind of retro, mod sound to it. But the Temples song happened to work really well, and I was happy about that.

A lot of the music in the documentary is by !!!. What led to that decision?

I’ve always been a big fan of that band, anyway. Music is really important to me and to what I make, and you can tell from this movie that it drives a lot of the action. I wanted a rock and roll, New York sound to go through the whole movie, something with a big an old, New York house vibe. I kept talking with my friends about it—what is that sound? I kept thinking it would be something old, and then I just that record on that day. That record was from 2013. I wasn’t even looking for music for the film, but immediately, I felt that it was hitting all of those registers. I listened to song after song, and the whole album had this cohesive vision that was similar to what I was looking for.

The film also works as a bit of a tribute to [former Queens graffiti mecca] 5 Pointz, which is slated for demolition. Did the whitewashing happen while you were in the midst of making this documentary?

It did, which was interesting. I already knew that I wanted to find a way to include the story of 5 Pointz in the film. Banksy did mention it at the end of his residency, so it was part of what he was trying to bring attention to. In so many ways, it was also part of the broader themes in Banksy’s residency: this idea that New York is a city that is becoming prohibitively expensive for artists to live in. Creative people have to move to other cities because they’re unable to find space, or keep their existing spaces. The arts aren’t able to start or continue to function because of how far the prices have gone up. 5 Pointz is a really good example of that: it was destined to become a luxury condo development because of its location, the views, and its proximity to other cultural locations. It was great that it was able to happen at all.

Not to get specifically into the legal issue of 5 Pointz because they’re complicated, and I think it’s great that the owners allowed it to exist at all for as long as it did. I think the broader issue isn’t 5 Pointz so much as what it means for a city like New York, where it’s gotten too expensive for its artists to live there. 

What did you learn about Banksy from making this film?

I don’t know any more about the artist than when I started—I mean, him as a person, or her, for that matter. I only know what everyone else seems to know, which is interesting because I spent so much time focused on Banksy’s artwork. Maybe that’s a testament to how effective the anonymous identity is. But what I can say is that was interesting to focus on the broader themes and work. I’m less interested in the individual pieces. Banksy is a street or graffiti artist, but in a way reminds me of the ‘60s and ‘70s tradition of conceptual art, where often the broader meaning or the context of the work was the takeaway. Not so much the actual piece, which could be irrelevant or ephemeral. What was important to the experience was the idea around the piece, and I think that was kind of my takeaway from Banksy’s work, as well. The pieces would come up, they’d be painted over, and often I felt like it was never about seeing it, but seeing everybody’s response to it. The way Banksy used social media as an alternative to the street; it is a public space, and it’s not unlike the city streets. It’s available to use as much as a public art space as a city sidewalk is.

***

Banksy Does New York premieres November 17th, 2014, on HBO at 9PM EST, and is available for streaming on HBO Go. For more information about the film, check out its website



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Matt
November 27th 2014
5:51pm

what is the band the director is talking about?