It's a cold, wet, Montreal night. The reflection of traffic lights glitters on damp streets. A black-clad figure rides through on a bicycle, clutching a piece of posterboard beneath one arm. He dismounts near a crosswalk, glancing furtively around him, and pulls something from his pocket. We hear the rattle-rattle of the spraypaint can as he works. He moves away and his work is revealed: a series of warm, glowing candles sprouting from the lines of the crosswalk.
This is how Alan Kohl's documentary film Roadsworth: Crossing the Line, screening at the ViewFinders International Film Festival, begins. The titular protagonist, otherwise known as Peter Gibson, spent years prowling and painting the streets of the city's Plateau district at night. But instead of the usual haphazard tags, Gibson left his mark with striking images---neon bicycles next to parking spots, owls gazing from sidewalk corners and leafy vines spiralling down road medians. These designs became a familiar---and anticipated---sight for Montrealers in the neighbourhood. Many assumed the art was a city initiative. Meanwhile, Gibson kept his double life a secret from virtually everyone he knew----including director Alan Kohl, who met Gibson while playing in jazz groups.
"Like everyone else, I didn't quite know he was the guy doing the stuff on the street," says Kohl. "I saw his stuff for years and never connected it to him. He was a pretty mild-mannered guy---it just didn't add up."
Kohl got wise to Gibson's situation through a mutual friend and got his permission to film as he created a stencil---an ON light switch---and sprayed it onto the street at four in the morning.
"When we got to the spot, I think he realized this could be a liability," says Kohl. "I also realized how much thought he had put into what he was doing because he had all these tricks to deal with getting caught. If he was painting, he would suddenly drop the stencil on the ground and just let cars drive over it. Or he would hide the can up his sleeve if someone was coming and pretend to smoke a cigarette."
Fatefully, the tricks were all for naught---Gibson got nabbed by the cops that very evening, after Kohl had left. Disappointed, Kohl went to France to work on another project. "I figured it was all over for both of us," he says. A few months later, friends called him and suggested he come back. A crusade had formed and Gibson was at its centre. From here, Kohl and his camera followed Gibson through his grapples with the law, international fame and reconciliation with his own identity as an artist. And the film's central questions began to emerge: Is Gibson's work art or graffiti? How much ownership should cities take over public space? And what happens when an artist formerly shrouded in mystery becomes a sensation? As Gibson begins to accept commissions for larger, city-sanctioned projects, he muses to the camera about his loss of "indignation." After painting a giant flock of birds to coincide with the Tour de France, he's openly ambivalent. His reaction tempers a scene that could have been straightforward and baldly triumphant.
"As soon as Peter was arrested, the work was instantly not the same," says Kohl. "There's no way you can experience that work in the same way. There's no more surprise when something's been commissioned, or in a gallery. It's still enjoyable, but it's also in a framework of expectation. It's much different from a guerilla event that takes you by surprise."
Since many of Gibson's original nighttime designs had faded or disappeared by the time the movie was being edited, Kohl used animation to bring some pieces back to life. He hopes that it will allow audiences to feel the same way he felt upon seeing Gibson's work in the streets for the first time.
"It's hard to re-create that feeling in a film," he says. "It's not the same as walking down the street, thinking about something else, drinking a cup of coffee and then suddenly being totally ripped out of that by this art. I wanted to bring back that sense of wonderment---that sense of discovery."
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