Interested in Street Art? How about art in general? Maybe politics is more your thing? Or perhaps you’re just curious about Brazil? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Grey City (Cidade Cinza) is a documentary you should go out of your way to see. Weaving together an entertaining storyline, through the voices of famed artists (Os Gêmeos, Nina, and Nunca, just to name a few), the film uses street art as a platform to portray a variety of interesting topics: art philosophy, political corruptness, and how a behemoth city can be full of peculiar charm.
Grey City’s US Premiere was a part of the IFC’s DOC NYC Film Festival, which ran last week. I was lucky enough to view a couple of the documentaries, but this one really catered to my creative side. The title takes its name from São Paulo, where the film is based. The city is portrayed almost as a character of its own (the numerous aerial shots are breathtaking and give sense to the Grey City’s name). This sprawling metropolis has given way to some of the most acclaimed artists of our generation, and in turn, their work within its streets has aided in establishing São Paulo as a graffiti mecca. As the film progresses, you quickly realize that this setting is none better to portray a creative resistance that spans the world over.
The face of São Paulo is in part known for it’s lack of advertising. Due to laws that make it so, the government has turned its eye onto the art that covers its streets, in a battle to erase what they deem “visual pollution.” To convey this, the documentary hones in on the tale of one large stretch of wall, that was once filled with art and then erased by the city’s governing forces. Directors Marcelo Mesquita and Guilherme Valiengo use this controversy as a means to get to know the city’s famed street artists and the ideals they work within.
The story of the wall is told through the painters who worked on it: Os Gêmeos, Nina, Nunca, and a slew of other local artists, who since the film, have seen their own work find gallery success and lucrative commissions in cities the world over.
On the other hand, the film also dedicates much time to interviews with São Paulo’s clean-up crew. Commissioned by City Hall, these contractors have been told to wash grey paint over any tags that aren’t deemed “artistic.” At one moment, the audience is introduced to the mayor of Sãu Paulo, and his general discomfort and lack of regard speaks volumes to the city’s politically nefarious nature. As awesome as it is to get into the heads of Os Gêmeos or Nunca, I was fascinated watching the other end of the spectrum too, to hear the government’s opinion on street art.
While the documentary panders to the creatives (and rightfully so I’d argue), it’s important to see both sides of the argument. To form any sort of opinion, one must subject themselves to investigating all sides of the matter, regardless of whichever belief they sway towards.
The artists devote a lot of their screen time to discussing the philosophical ramifications of street art. In that, it’s art that is owned by no one owner, but rather to the people. For these artists, that public nature is part of the allure, part of why they do what they do—that anyone can pick up a can, brush, or stencil and scrawl their name or a vision onto the wall, purveying a message for anyone to absorb. A public canvas opens up an entire world of interpretation. A walk to the corner store turns into a gallery owned and curated by the public, which in turn leads to a variety of opinions, questions, and interpretations. It’s an engrossing discussion that the film does a fantastic job of conveying within its running time of 80 minutes.
Where I live, in NYC, there has been a lot of street art controversy lately, from Banky’s residency to the painting of historical Five Pointz. Films like Grey City couldn’t come at a better time, bringing forth their messages and helping develop an opinion and further understanding into a medium I’m already so invested within. I couldn’t help but leave the cinema fired-up, as the artists featured within the doc were themselves. These guys have things to say and movements to contribute towards. To them, the public is no better a canvas to deliver these impressions. To me, it’s the best. And to you? You’ll have to just see the film and find out.