Art as a Weapon (2012) [San Diego Film Week 2017]

Made in 2012, Art as a Weapon is a documentary about using street art to publicly send a message, may it be of peace, hope, a political one, or any other messages sent to the mass public by way of graffiti, paintings, etc.  The film follows an art class in Burma learning to use art with the most effectiveness and contrasts this with American street artist Shepard Fairey.  Directed by San Diego documentarian Jeffrey Durkin, the film mixes the Burmese school students’ scenes with scenes shot in San Diego while artist Shepard Fairey was in town painting a Buddhist monk on the side of a building.

Interviews with the students and their teacher mix with Fairey’s comments and thoughts as well as works from a monk, a few politicians in pre-made recordings, and a Burmese punk rock band whose leader does not seem to believe in democracy as something better than their previous oppression. The film takes all these opinions and lets them be expressed clearly so that it does not take a political stance per sey in the face of all the information.  As a documentary can never truly be bias-less, Art as a Weapon does fall more on the side of democracy is a good thing, however it lets its participants say what they want without trying to skew their words one way or the other in terms of opinion and of how it comes off.

Art as a Weapon, as an art-based documentary should and does look great.  The cinematography by Jeff Katz shows both Burma and San Diego as different and impressive locations.  His images that serve as filler between interviews are beautiful and stunning, making the non-interview moments have a good impact and feel like they do really belong in the film.  His images are literally like moving photographs that show the locations and the art in the best light possible.  His framing, choice of light, and choice of focus show a great attention to detail.

Also deserving a shout-out is the art itself and what is shown about it.  The film shows art predominantly by Shepard Fairey as he is in the film but it also shows a global photo/street art project by French artist JR as well as a few other artists.  The film also shows how the kids in Burma are taught how to do street art, how they go about it in comparison with Fairey who is now a commissioned artist for his murals and works of art.  This shows the duality in street art and how it has evolved so far.

The effect of this art on various people is also shown as well as where the students are headed after this.  An update on these kids could be something to add to a re-release as the film is now five years old. Art as a Weapon is an interesting documentary that moves at a good pace, covers a lot of ground, and allows the viewer to make their own opinion on the subjects presented.  It’s shot beautifully and its stunning images help bring the viewer in and make them care about its subject.  It’s one of those documentaries that is not boring and visually interesting.