Bomb It played this last weekend at the Australian Center for the Moving Image – ACMI – The Australian version of the AFI and BFI.
Wall and Piece
February 13, 2009
Bomb It! The Global Graffiti Documentary is screening at ACMI until Sunday.
Graffiti is struggle territory, as a new film documents. By Craig Mathieson.
RESEARCHING and shooting footage for his documentary on modern street art, Bomb It! The Global Graffiti Documentary, took filmmaker Jon Reiss around the world. There was a rooftop in Berlin on which he spent a night, after the graffiti artists he was shooting became convinced plain-clothes police were down the block; an encounter with the English police in Sheffield, who thought they’d uncovered terrorist activities; even a journey into the sewers of Sao Paulo, in Brazil, that ended mere minutes before a flash flood filled the tunnels in which they’d been shooting.
“There’s a genetic coding for parents that blanks out the first six months of having a baby, otherwise no other parents would have any more children,” says Reiss. “It’s the same for filmmakers — they forget the pain and suffering that goes into making a film.”
But what Reiss and director of photography and co-producer Tracy Wares gathered from those and many other nocturnal shoots, and some 400 interviews, was an incisive overview of a movement typically met with scorn or cliched recognition. An authoritative history lesson and an intelligent survey of urban politics, Bomb It! is about far more than the rattle of aerosol cans and spread of graffiti writers’ signatures.
“One of the things that attracted me to the film was the universal need of humankind to write on walls,” explains Reiss.
“That doesn’t change across cultures. The forum changes, but the motivations stay the same. For people who are disenfranchised, there’s a need to make your mark and claim public space. Graffiti is one of the ways, consciously and unconsciously, that they can do that.”
Graffiti stretches back to ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, but the modern era began in a Philadelphia neighbourhood in 1967 with Darryl McCray, whose signature (or tag) was “Cornbread”. By the time Cornbread had tagged an elephant at the Philadelphia zoo (for which he was arrested), graffiti as we know it had spread to New York, before becoming a global phenomenon.
Street art’s international evolution is a key element in Bomb It! While the American scene is characterised by rivalries and running battles with authorities, the Dutch used it to further their fascination with typography, the French saw it as a tool for social commentary, and South Africans deployed it as a means of defiance in the struggle against apartheid.
Fittingly, Bomb It! is screening at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, opposite the southern end of Hosier Lane, which is the epicentre of Australian street art. Budgetary restraints prevented Reiss visiting Melbourne, despite its international reputation — “like Barcelona, it’s becoming known for beautiful street art on the walls”, he notes. “But the film’s underlying theme of public space and who controls it is as applicable here as anywhere internationally,” he says.
“I wouldn’t have been so addicted to the film if it wasn’t for that,” admits Reiss. “I realised early on how it was about a battle for public space and how the writers were conscious of that. Throughout the world there is a desire to create art in public, and beautify their surroundings. There’s also this co-option by corporations.”
An erudite 49-year-old who lives in Los Angeles, Reiss has been examining life on the fringes and the application of do-it-yourself philosophy since he was first attracted to punk rock in the late 1970s.
Some of his first works were on infamous American performance group Survival Research Laboratories, while in 1999 he made Better Living Through Circuitry, a well-received documentary about the rave movement.
“I’m always drawn to subversive subcultures,” Reiss says.
“There’s an exchange of ideas in my films … they’re more essays than focusing on one individual story. So much of the documentary world wants that personal narrative, but my films don’t do that,” he says.
“People who don’t fit into contemporary society find a place within subcultures to create a community and family unto themselves; that’s very much my story. What attracted me to punk rock was what attracted me to rave culture was what attracted me to graffiti.”