Film Review: Gift

reviewed by Bilge Ebiri
The Gift movie poster

There is a radical utopianism at the heart of Gift, but for its 90-minute running time, Robin McKenna’s documentary makes you believe such a world is possible. The film, inspired by Lewis Hyde’s 2007 book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, takes a look at case studies of individuals sharing their art with the world—not just free of charge, but informed by a desire to better the lives of those around them.

It’s a gentle rebuke to the notion of the art world as an insular, money-obsessed place, though the people and places presented here are light years away from the glass buildings, white walls, and black-clad elites of metropolitan galleries. It’s also a not-so-gentle rebuke to the notion that humans are more selfish and tribal than ever before.

Artist Lee Mingwei mounts a museum installation where visitors are given free flowers that they must then give to passersby on their way home; each exchange is an effort to mend one small corner of the world. A native American artist, Marcus Alfred of the Kwakwaka’wakw tribe, prepares for a ritual in which he will give away everything he has created.

Most fascinatingly, and movingly, Rome’s Metropoliz presents an “inhabited museum” where hundreds of migrant families live among installations and other donated works of art. Sometimes the art isn’t art in the traditional sense. For example, a beekeeper gives away a variety of honey products at Burning Man.

What makes McKenna’s film so compelling isn’t just the fundamental humanism of this idea, but the cinematic power with which it’s presented. The film, to its credit, indulges the art, and the aesthetic beauty onscreen uncovers the inner beauty that drives people to connect with their fellow humans. The movie itself, in its own way, is such a gift. 

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