'The Man Who Stole Banksy' Explores the Removal & Sale of Illegal Art
Filmmaker Marco Proserpio unveils major takeaways ahead of the film’s Tribeca premiere.
Milan-based filmmaker Marco Proserpio produced and directed a new documentary entitled The Man Who Stole Banksy, set to premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. The movie questions the removal and sale of illegal art while also bringing the viewers’ attention to the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The film kicks off in 2007 when Banksy and his crew put up their iconic murals and stencils around the local streets of Palestine as well as the West Bank walls.
One of the controversial pieces that the elusive artist created portrayed an Israeli soldier asking a donkey for its identification papers. The artwork receives backlash from several locals especially the film’s main subject, Walid The Beast, who claims it compares Palestinians to “asses.” Walid The Beast is a taxi driver who gets caught up in a wild tale involving the auction of the largest Banksy mural to be excavated for sale in the market. By following Walid, viewers come across the ethical, social and political ramifications surrounding the nearly 3-ton artwork.
We sat down with Proserpio to discuss major takeaways from the film. Check out the full interview alongside stills from the documentary below. You can purchase tickets to watch the film at Tribeca’s official website. The last screener takes place on April 26.
“I realized that this could be the perfect story to show the situation in Palestine and to get to know the locals, not as we see them in pictures, but as human beings.”
First off, what’s the story behind Iggy Pop narrating this art documentary?
My team and I wanted the narration to be clear. We talked about the voice and wanted it to sound wise and punk in the documentary. Most importantly, we wanted somebody who wouldn’t directly connect to the politics in any way. Iggy’s name was the first one to come out. I just dropped an e-mail to his manager and ten hours later, they said they were interested in doing it.
What made you want to capture this film?
It all started during my first trip to Palestine in 2012. When I passed the checkpoint from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for the first time, the very first guy I met in Palestine was Walid The Beast. He somehow became the main character in the story. When I went inside his taxi, he told me the story about having a Banksy at home and I really didn’t know what he meant. I thought he was talking about some drinks or some things from the Banksy show in 2007 called Santa’s ghetto. But, Walid explained and he was talking about a big chunk of the wall like four tonnes, with the donkey and the soldier painted on it.
At that time, I realized this could be the perfect story to show the situation in Palestine and to get to know the locals, not as we see them in pictures, but as human beings.
“A lot of the locals love Banksy and what he did there, but there were a lot of rumors in the town that people didn’t like his actions, even his Walled Off Hotel.”
How long did it take you to complete the film?
I’ve been following this story for the past six years. I haven’t been in Palestine for six years straight, but I’ve been there so many times. The brutal situation over there really captured my attention. I didn’t want to live in the world where building a wall around the problem is the solution. I was just really focused on trying to find the right way to highlight the situation in Palestine. Walid The Beast, in a sense, gave me this chance. He’s politically-incorrect in a way [chuckles], but he had the best character.
Although West Bank locals took offense to Banksy’s Donkey and Soldier mural, would you say a majority of Palestinians still side with Banksy and his politically-charged artworks?
The reaction is really a mixture of things. It really depends on the context. A lot of the locals love Banksy and what he did there, but there were a lot of rumors in the town that people didn’t like his actions, even his Walled Off Hotel. At the same time, I’m quite sure that all these actions by Banksy are not done to speak to the Palestinians. They are done to speak to our society, to our western society. To gain attention to the cause. It’s like the price to pay for Banksy. Some of the locals don’t like him and think he’s doing this for his own fame and pockets. However, I really do think that the Banksy team is doing a wonderful job there.
“The street art was created for everyone, but the context differentiates when people steal these artworks.”
So you’re saying that Banksy’s works are more or less a vessel to talk about larger issues?
Absolutely, I think his street art grabs the attention of the younger generation to bigger issues. If you look at the first thing he did there [Palestine] in 2007, he organized a show called “Santa’s Ghetto” with a lot of artists such as Ron English, Bleu, Paul Insect, and many of them. It was to gain attention on Palestine and to get money to give to young kids there to study art. That was the priority. At the same time, when they did all of these artworks on the separation wall and in the city of Bethlehem, all of the tourism in Bethlehem was busses of tourists that were going in there, in the major square at the Church of Nativity, and get back on the bus to Israel.
Nowadays, if you walk in the streets of Bethlehem, you meet a lot of young kids going around the city to check out the Banksy artworks and every time he did something in the streets, the location was perfect. You can really see the situation of Palestine in the locations he chose to put up his pieces.
Some of the people that also visit are art dealers and collectors as you portrayed in the film. What do you think of them potentially excavating these public works to sell for their own gain?
Most of the documentary is based on this radical action. The street art was created for everyone, but the context differentiates when people steal these artworks. It’s a capitalistic approach for dealers like Stephen Keszler. Basically, [in the film] he said that ‘if you have a Banksy on your wall and I walked to your house and offered you $100,000 USD, would you give me permission to cut the wall?’ It’s not something I like, but at the same time, I understand that this is just a mirror of our society. You can buy everything. We live in the world where everything has a price.
“I’m sort of using Banksy in this documentary as a trick to talk about Palestine to the younger generation.”
Should more people side with the ethical approach to public art?
For sure, I like that approach more. It’s the freest approach where art doesn’t have any value and artists are just writing — the rules of the street. However, it’s also an important thing when people buy these artworks to preserve them.
What personal messages did you want viewers to take away from watching your film?
I don’t want to obviously compare my work to Banksy, but in a way, I was trying to do the same thing that he did in Gaza. Banksy was painting kittens, the popular ones you see on the Internet, to grab people’s attention and bring awareness to a larger issue. I was trying to do the same thing with this film, Banksy was my kitten in a way. I’m sort of using Banksy in this documentary as a trick to talk about Palestine to the younger generation. I just want people to see the context there and to see something that is totally brutal — a situation that I don’t want to see in the world.