When I was in grad school, the first book we had to read was Lewis Hyde’s “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World.” It’s a beautiful meditation on the concept of gifting through cultures and history and folklore, and a wonderful read for anyone concerned about surviving our current consumer culture. Robin McKenna’s documentary GIFT is based somewhat on that book. She trains her lens on four separate art stories around the world where people are doing what they do for art’s sake, not for money. And the film just might make you want to go out and do something in a similar vein.
Two of the threads are more compelling that the others, though that’s probably just a personal choice. I really loved the Metropoliz Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere in Rome, a former sausage factory turned into a museum that is shared living space for a couple of hundred immigrant families. It’s the art that keeps these families safe and it’s wonderful to see children living and playing surrounded by great art. My other fave is artist Lee Mingwei whose art takes place inside the beautiful Auckland Art Gallery. One of his pieces involves giving flowers to people on the condition that they give them away. Another has classically trained singers offering private performances to museum goers, some of whom are not receptive to being given something for free. It brought tears to my eyes.
The part that brought me back to the book is the story of Marcus Alfred, artist and chief of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe in the Pacific Northwest, who convenes a potlatch, a ceremony where he gives away what he has created, in this case his beautiful wood carvings. It’s an interesting concept of “… giving away or destroying wealth or valuable items in order to demonstrate a leader’s wealth and power.” Within indigenous communities there is a deep tradition of gifting. And finally, the least interesting of the threads was about a young beekeeper named Michelle “Smallfry” Lessans who makes a bee car to ride around Burning Man handing out bee related products.
GIFT cuts back and forth between all the artists’ stories, throwing in occasional quotes from the book. And it’s a fun one to watch, though more fun at certain times than others. I’d love to see a full length film about either the Metropoliz Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere or artist Lee Mingwei. For different viewers the other parts could be more their cup of tea. It’s a pleasure to see a film about people being good to one another for a change. So if you’re looking for an alternative to our depressing current affairs and other dystopian cinema choices, this could be the movie to see. Be ready to go out afterwards and gift someone something cool, too.