“Sky’s The Limit, Painters of the Extreme” is a Street art documentary created by French filmmaker Jerome Thomas and made possible thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign that surpassed all the expectations.
The documentary narrates the history of a growing international phenomenon that started nearly 70 years ago with the development of international muralist movements in the 1930s. Probably the most known and therefore important being the Mexican muralism.
As recounted by Thomas, in France, everything started in the 80s with the operation “13 walls 13 cities” by Jack Lang. After a decline, the movement was reborn with Tour Paris 13, but also the development of the advertising industry in Paris and their massive public space takeovers.
Having PANTÓNIO(Portugal)-KATRE(France)-JACE(France)-MARKO93(France)-ASTRO(France)-KOUKA(France)-INTI(Chili)-STEW(France)-SETH(France)-C215(France) and MADC(Germany) as protagonists, the documentary takes us on a trip through the history of development of todays neo-muralist movement.
In order to understand more about the film, I got in touch with Thomas. I didn’t know much about him and I was intrigued by the fact that someone, that is mainly known for installations and films that question the entropy and fragility of living beings, had spent four years making a documentary about street art.
I was a bit surprised when I discovered that the reason behind this choice was his connection with the scene. Self-described as a “vandal”, a graffiti writer, Jerome comes from a family of artists and was, since an early age, encouraged by his parents to open his mind to liberal arts. Around 1992 he created the French graffiti crew STS along with two close friends, Choc and Thom. During 1996-1997, the crew evolved and changed name to Steus, Vgtah (Jerome), Lao and 5kiem who built two home studios they used to record tracks. Teaming up with French artist Katre, they built a professional studio called FOLIMER.
After 7 years working at FOLIMER, the crew decided to focus on commercial filming, which Thomas said was a great learning experience lead to his first documentary. When talking about this period he doesn’t hide his disappointment. Quoting Jerome: “during all these years I learned to shoot and edit videos, then it became a real job when i did my first documentary on the home-studio phenomena in 2004. I entered TV and made several documentaries, but the spirit in classic production is shit, they don’t give a fuck about their subject, the earliest they finish it, the happiest they are. I’m the opposite. It is a pleasure for me to work for 5 years on a great subject.”
“I was looking for an angle to speak about graffiti, a fresh approach, something new, I don’t want to focus on the good old days or the golden age or the platinum age.”
According to Thomas, the documentary intends to present a fresh approach to what we today call “Street Art” by drawing some parallels to the muralist movement from the 1930s and the rise of the so-called Neo-Muralism in France. The idea came to him after his friend Katre invited him to keep him with company while he was working at TOUR 13. It was when he saw Katre’s wall completed that he realised that he wanted to make a documentary about how the movement became what it is today, tracing its development all the way to our days.
A the time, Thomas didn’t know much about the history of Muralism, at least not until he got introduced to a French book about American Muralism written by Hervé Armand Bechy. Apart from this book and Murs Murs (1981), a film by Agnes Varda, there was according to Jerome little about the movement in France. Thomas was determined to change that.
It was while he was visiting Vitry that he came across Christian Guemy aka C215 and his team. The recording of this encounter became the first shots of what was to become Sky is the Limit.
Adopting a historical approach, he decided to focus on the roots of today’s Neo Muralism by analysing it as a mixture of graffiti, urbanism, muralism and architecture; at times political, legal or illegal.
Contextualising the movement
In the process, Thomas recalls inviting John Pitman Weber, but he not only refused to be part of the documentary, but also forbid Thomas from using any images from the Chicago muralist pioneers by arguing that the documentary had nothing to do with the American movement in the 1980s.
Looking for alternatives Thomas came across Fabio Rieti, a 91-year-old French muralist that affirmatively saw a link between traditional Muralism and Neo-Muralism.
The idea was to contextualize the work and show how it relates, not only to the time it’s being created in, but also to an essential need to express something. From the cave paintings at Lascaux Grottoes in southern France to the street art murals of today, people have been leaving signs of their own existence in many places around the world.
Since then, murals have covered the interiors and exteriors of public buildings through the centuries, often keeping their initial meaning and purpose. That is, to paint a picture of society created from stories based on common values and dreams and use it as a tool for social emancipation.
From being a subversive and radical act of creative vandalism, Street Art and Graffiti have now been popularised and absorbed by the art market and art institutions around the world, often being sponsored by corporate brands as creative interventions in the urban landscape.
When asked about the relationship between Street Art and gentrification, an issue addressed in the documentary, Jerome says he doesn’t really see the problem with it. For him it has both positive and negatives implications as a sign for social mobility.
Street art has been used in diverse marketing strategies, and recently to promote gentrification. Anyhow, Jerome doesn’t believe that painting murals on walls increase the price of properties:
“Painting murals doesn’t rise the housing prices, I think Inti is right in the documentary when he says that we need to paint for everybody, because everybody needs art, more art, less advertisement. I also agree with ASTRO’s point of view when he says that it is better to put colours in projects from the city.” And he is probably right if you look at single murals as isolated phenomenons, but many studies highlight the fact that areas with a higher concentration of urban art such as murals, outdoor sculptures or even local art events, have experienced an increase in their market value.
Of course this is a discussion that can be debated. Thomas’ main argument is that Neo-muralism, even when sometimes includes the expression of social discontent, it is also responsible for improving spaces where is performed bringing life and colour to the surrounding landscape.
Making the documentary, Thomas had an amazing opportunity to work with ten talented artists from around the globe. We hear them expressing their opinions about other artists, the way they define what they do and why they do it, weather and technical challenges, authorities, reactions from residents, etc.
After listening to what they had to say I wondered what were the biggest difficulties encountered by Thomas while filming the documentary. To this he answers that it was an everyday fight, then he adds:
“it’s so physical you can’t even imagine. You can’t feel it in the documentary, but when Astro, Stew and Borondo tell you it’s hard, it is really a fight. Painting his mural for example, Pantonio lost 5 kilos. No joke, the work is monumental, you go beyond your limits, and usually it’s only for the fame. It feels like punching the wall with brushes. Sometimes you loose, sometimes you win. You have to be strong; mentally, physically, artistically and politically.”
Thomas’ team are the artists he meets and the documentary is a result of the experiences they share together; painting, talking, eating, laughing and sometimes struggling.
When asked if he would do it again, he didn’t hesitate. The answer was yes, but also that he would consider cutting down the editing time to one month instead of a year. He laughs.
So what’s next for Thomas? A documentary about dance! Yes, folks, a documentary about dance. How fun is that, isn’t it?
Last December ‘Sky is the Limit’ won an award to the best documentary at the Short To The Point. International short film festival and Thomas is currently looking for a worldwide distributor. hint-hint.