Inspired by Lewis Hyde’s 1983 beloved book “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World,” writer-director Robin McKenna slams the brakes on this fast-paced world which revolves around commerce by using the spirit of Hyde’s novel to bring us four character-driven stories centered on gift giving which can be the ultimate form of wealth.
One does not have to be rich to be wealthy. Take a moment to reflect on that notion. There is a lesson to be learned from the indigenous people of North America whose gift-giving feast called a potlach celebrates the giving away of one’s possessions to affirm social status. Radical concept, right? In 1884 the Federal Government thought so and they banned the practice under the Indian Act. The notion of gifting without expecting something in return was deemed anti-Christian by the feds which is funny since you can’t spell Christianity without Christ whose life was the essence of generosity.
In McKenna’s film, we meet Kwakwaka'wakw artist Wayne Alfred working on a beautiful totem pole that will be given away along with other artwork in the potlatch ceremony. When speaking about his ancestors the talented carver says “Our people were so rich with wealth not money. It was about us giving every last dime that we had so that your pockets are hanging out.”
From there we go to the Black Rock Desert of northwest Nevada where Michelle "Smallfry" Lessans is seen driving around the annual Burning Man event in an art car named Beezus Christ, Super Car which resembles a huge bumblebee. She offers free rides and free honey in the bee-hicle while observing, "I think the gift economy and the concept of gifting is really challenging because it's so counter to what we’ve been taught.”
In Rome, we are given a tour of Metropoliz, the first inhabited museum on earth where artwork adorns the walls of the former salami factory now illegally occupied by migrants and artists. Adults and children live in the industrial setting where they believe in gifting everything that is brought into Metropoliz including their time. In one scene flowers are given out by the residents to people on the street as an act of kindness. At first, it may be surprising to see some people reject the blossom but one contributor points out, “When you give someone a gift, you’re taking the risk that the person may not want what you’re giving.”
My favorite scenes in McKenna’s film take place in Auckland, New Zealand where Taiwan born American artist Lee Mingwei, whose projects often involve audience participation, prepares to launch a beautiful work named Sonic Blossom at the Auckland Art Gallery. The idea came to Mingwei while caring for his mother after surgery. The two found solace by listening to Franz Schubert’s Lieder. For the project, Mingwei recruits a few professional singers who roam the gallery, randomly asking visitors, “May I give you a gift of song?” If they accept, they are escorted to a gallery and seated for a performance of one of five chosen Schubert compositions. The angelic sounds from the classically trained vocalists bring tears to the eyes of their recipients and I expect to most of the film’s audience.
“Gift” is much more than a documentary. McKenna captures the spirit of Hyde’s classic novel as the film becomes a meditative piece and hopefully a lesson for all of us in the importance of giving back.
Now showing at the Regal Arbor 8 @ Great Hills (Austin)