After seeing Amreeka (Cherien Dabis, 2008), a narrative about a Palestinian woman from Bethlehem who moves to the United States with her teenage son, I was inspired to look more closely at the pieces Banksy, graffiti prankster supreme, did in Bethlehem and elsewhere in the West Bank in 2005.
Bansky’s been on my mind because his film, Exit Through the Gift Shop, is playing at the upcoming Sydney Film Festival, and I can’t wait to see it. Apparently it’s a loopy instant classic, a savage commentary on art and commerce; it’s been getting explosive raves from everyone I know who’s seen it.
I have to admit that until I saw Amreeka and really looked at Banksy’s work, I hadn’t thought all that much about the security barrier that’s being constructed by Israel around the Palestinian territories. It’s an astonishing 430-mile-long wall of concrete and barbed wire, eight feet high in places. The barrier is controversial to say the least. Israel calls it a “security fence.” Opponents call it the “Apartheid Wall.” It’s considered illegal by the UN and the International Court of Justice, for what that’s worth, which is obviously not much.
The construction of the wall has resulted in the seizure of Palestinians’ private property and the destruction of farmland (a topic covered in the documentary Budrus, also playing at SFF). And of course it now greatly restricts the freedom of Palestinians. They’re basically enclosed in their territories by force.
I don’t have a partisan agenda here. My agenda is peace and justice. But the sight of that ugly concrete barrier speaks for itself. It can’t help but remind me of the Berlin Wall, or Children of Men. No good could come of such a thing. Banksy, with typical incendiary flair, called Palestine the world’s largest open-air prison.
The early scenes of Amreeka show how its main characters, Muna and her son Fadi, have to pass through a security checkpoint at the barrier every day to get home to Bethlehem. Muna’s commute home from work takes three hours because of the barrier. In one nerve-wracking scene, Israeli troopers harass the slight, bookish Fadi in front of her, pulling him from the car to search him.
The film doesn’t show us anything worse; it’s a character-driven story with comic touches, and its focus is on the daily lives of average Palestinians. But we’re reminded throughout of the trouble and danger in their home.
Amreeka makes a point of the fact that Muna and her family are Christians. They and their relatives are naturally assumed to be Muslims by the suburban Americans they encounter, and are frequently harassed. As Muna points out, they are minorities wherever they go.
As a Christian myself, I find the state of things in Bethlehem today more than a little disturbing. But this is the world we live in. Banksy’s use of a dove in one of his pieces in Bethlehem brings it home.
To my knowledge none of Banksy’s art makes it into Amreeka, but his influence is visible in other graffiti seen on the wall in the film, the most striking example being the huge block letters reading BEEN THERE, DONE THAT. I like that one. It’s worthy of the ferocious cynicism of the Sex Pistol’s landmark excursion to the Berlin Wall, “Holidays in the Sun.”
Hitting an oppressive structure with clever or outrageous graffiti is a universal impulse. It doesn’t signal some kind of great uprising. Think the architects and overlords of this wall are paying attention?
Yet there’s something special about Banksy. More than most other artists who are trying to say something about the world, his work has the ability to smash through lazy thinking, to attack the barriers we build around our day-to-day selves. At least for a few moments. Maybe it’s the way he often portrays children at play, pastoral landscapes, and other images of innocence and beauty cruelly juxtaposed with violence and greed. Or the way innocence often prevails, as with the stencilled little girl frisking an Israeli trooper. It’s by turns hilarious and heartbreaking. Others can write slogans like “No Justice No Peace,” but Banksy has a lightning-rod ability to torment us with reminders of what peace actually looks like, to show us things we didn’t know we wanted to see. He seems to create according to the Situationist philosopher Raoul Vaneigem’s famous words:
People who talk about revolution and class struggle without referring explicitly to everyday life, without understanding what is subversive about love and what is positive in the refusal of constraints, such people have a corpse in their mouth.
Banksy has said, “I like to think I have the guts to stand up anonymously in a western democracy and call for things no one else believes in — like peace and justice and freedom.” I love the way this statement is embedded with contradictions and challenges to commonplace notions. Can you stand up anonymously? Well, if anyone can it’s Banksy. And don’t people believe in peace and justice and freedom? Actually, maybe they don’t.
And he certainly has guts; beneath the brutal sardonic wit, I think he has a huge heart and really believes in this stuff and is willing to risk a lot for it. It’s said he was confronted by Israeli troopers during his excursions in the West Bank, guns were pointed at him, shots fired in the air.
But the message is out. If you google “west bank barrier,” his images are among the first things you see, though that work was done five years ago. The whole thing is absurdly heroic. His art really has an effect on a broad spectrum of people, not just anarchists and hipsters, as proven by the amazing word of mouth on his film. As aggressively marginal and plain nuts as he is, people love him.
Well, not everyone. Apparently when he was working on the barrier, an old Palestinian man told him that he was making the wall beautiful. Banksy thanked him; but the old man’s reply was, “We don’t want it to be beautiful, we hate this wall. Go home.”
To see more of Banksy’s work in Palestine you’ll have to do a Google image search, as his brilliant website has been updated with more recent projects.