The scene is set. Shaky camera footage captures two unidentified men standing on top of a truck and detaching an enormous helium balloon that spells out “Banksy!”—a name associated to a pseudonymous English graffiti artist—from the side of a New York high-rise. As they climb down from their perch, an off-camera voice alerts them that the cops are on their way and someone else yells: “Arrest them! Thief!”
As one of the men tries to run with the crinkled balloon in hand, the NYPD apprehends him and a crowd quickly gathers. There is a scuffle and amidst the clamor, the helium balloon designed by Banksy is tossed about—everyone wants a piece of Banksy’s art. Meanwhile, the entire scene is caught on a camera phone.
Documentary filmmaker and Corcoran School alumnus Chris Moukarbel, Fine Arts BFA ’04, could not have asked for better footage for the opening sequence of his HBO documentary film, Banksy Does New York. The film centers on the impact of Banksy on the city during his month-long residency in October of 2013. The film premiered on HBO last November with numerous accolades for its originality because it is almost entirely based on footage generated from New York’s social media landscape.
“There really is no better way to tell someone’s experience than through their own footage,” Moukarbel said. “It makes the story more compelling and definitely more worth watching.”
When HBO approached Moukarbel about the Banksy project, his first documentary film, Meet Me @ the Zoo, had recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. That film starred YouTube sensation Chris Crocker, whose 2007 Leave Britney Alone video went viral and propelled Crocker to Internet infamy. Moukarbel and his team used clips from Crocker’s YouTube account to tell Crocker’s story. Soon after, HBO acquired Meet Me @ the Zoo.
Studying at the Corcoran definitely developed my critical thinking about art and its different forms
“I think HBO was attracted to the idea that Meet Me @ the Zoo wasn’t your traditional documentary,” Moukarbel said. “We used Krocker’s existing footage and wove it into a form that not only highlights him as this dramatic Internet personality, but who Krocker is as a person.”
Using the same premise for the Banksy film, Moukarbel and his team spent hundreds of hours mining the Internet for media. They sifted through Banksy hash-tags, finding breadcrumbs that would lead to a coherent account of how New Yorkers experienced Banksy’s residency in the city. And they found a gold mine—there were hundreds of sightings, images and videos of Banksy art throughout the city.
“The hardest part was going through all of that content,” said Moukarbel. “You have to start with editing right off the top.”
When he and his team finally had enough content to tell a coherent story, they reached out to the owners of the footage for interviews. These interviews were the only footage the team filmed.
I believe social media content reveals what an individual’s ideals are and, in the end, what our culture’s ideals are
Moukarbel’s interest in “user-generated content documentary filmmaking” stems from his days at Corcoran and his fascination with art involving identity and technology. As a student, he toyed with various video mediums. His first film project as a student involved piecing together different videos featuring aspects of popular culture and everyday life into video art.
“Studying at the Corcoran definitely developed my critical thinking about art and its different forms … how I could creatively use the medium I had on hand to create something altogether different.” For Moukarbel, social media soon became one of those mediums.
“User-generated content is a great way for telling stories now,” Moukarbel said. “I think the fascination began when I realized that I live so much of my life online—it’s my actual day-to-day, as it is for so many [other] people.”
These social media archives, he noted, are windows into how individuals see and like to be seen—in effect, performing a version of their own identities online.
“I believe social media content reveals what an individual’s ideals are and, in the end, what our culture’s ideals are,” Moukarbel said. “That’s what makes this documentary format so interesting and more tangible to wider audiences.”
Moukarbel’s vision is the reason why, after the Banksy Does New York premiere, HBO signed him on to produce a modern version of the HBO hit documentary series Real Sex. The new version, titled Sex Now, is based on the Internet’s effect on relationships, sex and modern sexual culture. While the original Real Sex involved film crews traveling the country in search of participants, Moukarbel and his team simply search the web for users who already have their stories online.
“People who put their sex stories online already want to find an audience or are looking to connect with an audience,” Moukarbel said, “It makes our job easier because we audition stories just by surfing the web.”
“It’s an exciting project and I believe it will make people think about how technology has changed our interactions with even the most intimate aspects of our lives.”
His advice to Corcoran students: “Try to express your artwork with whatever resources you have available. It’s more exciting to let go of the preciousness of material and tell whatever story is authentic to you at that moment.”
Currently, Banksy Does New York can be found on HBO on Demand and HBOgo. Sex Now will premiere in late spring.