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In the HBO documentary Banksy Does New York – which is getting a theatrical release here – young filmmaker Chris Moukarbel combines social media material and phone camera footage with interviews to build up the story of the elusive street artist’s month long residency in New York City. TRAVIS JOHNSON has a word.

“HBO approached me about making the film, about a week or so after Banksy had left,” Moukarbel explains. “After the residency was finished. I had actually just moved from New York City – I had lived there for 10 years and I had just moved to LA and suddenly I find myself pulled back in to do this project. So it was an opportunity for me to kind of say goodbye to my hometown in the footsteps of Banksy’s project. I enjoyed the project a lot – it became very personal for me.”

Moukarbel found himself faced with two considerable problems: for one thing, Banksy is notoriously secretive, to the point where nobody actually knows his true name and identity. For another, the residency, which saw Banksy quietly create a number of street paintings, installations and other works before leaving clues on social media for fans to find them, had been and gone. So, Moukarbel began scouring the online world for public-created footage of and about Banksy’s activities.

“You know, I’ve made films and projects in a similar style in the past,” he tells us. “And for HBO, which I why I think they approached me for this film. Because Banksy had finished his residency there was nothing to document, but there was this enormous online archive, because all of the fans and followers had been tracking Banksy and would show up at each location with their phones out, videotaping and creating a record. For me, not being there while he was there presented a problem of how do I represent this, but at the same time I would never have been able to track him or get cameras to where he was quickly enough because he was a moving target. So harnessing this archive and using this footage that all these New Yorkers had assembled made a lot of sense.”

Working in this way meant that Moukarbel had only a vague sense of the shape his film would assume by the end of the production process. “It really revealed itself. I didn’t really know too much about what Banksy had done. We had to put a frame around the entire thing. People had looked at a couple of individual pieces, but this is the first time anybody had looked at the entire month and pulled meaning out of the entire project, so that was exciting. In a lot of ways we began by editing – before we started shooting or writing anything we just started editing all this footage that we found online. That began to reveal various characters and various through-stories, so from there we reached out to various people and followed up individuals and we conducted various interviews. We were able to track down some of the pieces that had been stolen and follow the trajectory of some of the individual pieces. But that all came after the fact; we really didn’t start shooting until we’d assembled a lot of the film from archival material that was on Instagram, Vine, YouTube.”

Moukarbel’s work represents a new kind of documentary form – one in which filmmakers have access to an unprecedentedly large amount of material to work with, thanks to the popularity of social media and the modern ubiquitousness of high definition portable cameras. “I think there’s a tradition of using archival footage,” he reflects. “But this is sort of different. What I’m interested in, and with my other projects as well, is telling a story that already exists in a public space – weaving together all these bits of media.”

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