Jeff Durkin’s documentary, Art As A Weapon, initially shines a light on the city of Mae Sot along the border of Burma and Thailand. There, art teacher Erik Nordrvedt has created a curriculum based on street art, instructing students in the value, techniques and artwork associated with the form. From there, the film’s scope widens to include the tumultuous history of the region, and the role various forms of rebellious artistic expression can play in promoting thought and action, eventually connecting with artist and activist, Shepard Fairey, as he spreads the word about Burma’s political climate and community via his own endeavors.
While the film is notable for its specific focus on Mae Sot and the surrounding region, it doesn’t really say anything new about the role that street art can play in protest, or the visceral value of art to inspire thought or action. So if you’ve seen a documentary or two about these ideas, then you’re not going to hear anything terribly novel or unique here.
The film does a good job of underscoring the strength of its message regarding the power of art as a weapon for inspiration and change in a number of ways, however. For example, when Fairey donates the “Freedom to Lead” image he created of Burmese advocate for democracy, political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi, the image becomes the start of the conversation for many of those unaware of Burma’s political and human rights issues; for those in the region, it becomes an iconic symbol for democracy, shared freely.
As a portrait of life, artistic or otherwise, along the Burmese/Thai border, the film also succeeds. Spreading the word about life in Burma is a major part of the art involved, and the film is an extension of that. If we walked away from the film thinking, “wow, street art is neat,” then, sure, that’s one takeaway you could have, but it misses the spotlight that is being focused on the region by the documentarian’s lens.
Technically it’s a very polished and competently crafted film. The film comes together in an aesthetically pleasing and entertaining way, offering a significant amount of information and education without feeling preachy, disjointed or uncomfortably academic.
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