HotDocs Review: Roadsworth – Crossing the line [Alan Kohl, 2009]


Toronto – By the time the week-long HotDocs ended last year, I think we had watched a total of 10 man-films between all of us at Panic Manual, which entirely justified the cool response from the festival guys this year around. Alas, they were very cool in the pop-culture sense of the word, and sent us material regardless of our past records. We collectively broke down, wept and now have a guilty-conscience. Seriously, I really appreciate this. I am reminded that my self-professed love for docs and shorts together with last year’s incongruous behavior made me a snobbish hypocritical ass, and so I deserve to dwell with my kind in Toronto. And in Peter Gibson’s mind (at least in 2001), Toronto’s not as cool as Montreal. For, around that time the soon to be crowned “Lord Roadsworth” felt an need to express himself. The general fear and hatred stemming from 911 was too much, and he detected the time was right to cheer us up through the most mundane of urban substance – the streets. So spray cans were picked up, plans were meticulously made, stencils were designed and cut, long hours of nights and dawn were spent, and the illegal act of public mischief and vandalism was carried out to the delight of an appreciative public. This was the same people who would eventually be the voice leading to his arrest, the contentious issue of public space, exoneration and even employment. Roadsworth couldn’t had stenciled the response to his street art more dramatically himself.

The documentary opened with a stoic graffiti artist who just wants to do his work. The story quickly mounts to the original motivation and some computer graphics that animates his static stencils. It was a nice touch used sparingly throughout. If one couldn’t read that this was produced with the National Film Board of Canada, by the time it rolled to Peter’s arrest, you would most definitely have identified him as Canadian. The event wasn’t headlining as a freedom of expression crusade. There was no constitutional amendments or artistic movement beneath the yellow paint. The atmosphere was mellow, and the film portrayed the entirety almost as harmless as child’s play. Which it literally was – none of the subjects were obscene/vulgar. Owl, vines, flowers, transformer logo, doves, shoes, zippers and candle sticks are hardly controversial (fine, sharks, bullets, demons and toilet drains weren’t G-rated… but the context were innocuous). Peter himself was not entirely indifferent, but throughout the film you will get a sense that he has accepted that it isn’t a trivial pursuit. Although coming to terms with persecution and the realization that not everyone loves his art – he himself didn’t sometimes – was a little rough around the edges. This isn’t exactly tear-jerking material – but it sucks when it rains on your parade. Keeping with the tone, the artists, friends and even the lawyer interviewed were all fairly evenhanded. As I am writing this, I feel a little similar to what I think the film was trying to say: this was an artistic exercise gone public. The mid section of the film was about Roadworth’s search for why and how he is to expand his career, as he grew more famous. The hindsight look over his works in Europe was presented with a little skew. I didn’t know if I should think of it as a contrast to his more positive public treatment back home, or as a growth phase when he’s running a bit dry on materials. The English at Ashford hated the doves/birds, the toilet drain at Berlin met a down-pour so almost no one noticed, oh and then we have the Dutch lady. Witness she-who-called-the-police while Peter tried to demonize her sidewalk with clouds and tulips. I guess we all have our breaking points but I would not have guess it’s tulips…

You may argue that he “sold-out”. The vandalism lawsuit ended with a slap-on-the-wrist; he now works with the city sometimes to paint public spaces. But I’d say he’s right. There was never anything to sell. He wanted to paint the streets. Whether the City of Montreal allows/pays him to do so is irrelevent. There is integrity in that. If I’m cynical (which I’m not), perhaps that was the goal and he acted in a script that he wrote – in that case all the power to Roadsworth. I do wish he’d use other colors though… but that’s his call really. Any way, I recommend this, especially as a good documentary for a piece of Canadian modern art history.

Posted on by Gary in Hot Docs, Movies