Crawling inside the mind of an artist can be like crawling inside the thickets of a magical forest where fireflies flicker, owls screech and unrecognizable shadows taunt the imagination. Much like secrets of the forest, secrets of the artist can never fully be revealed… Or can they? Such is the underlying subject of British director Alastair Siddons’ new HBO documentary, Inside Out: The People’s Art Project, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City this week.

At a time when the world appears to be imploding, Siddons’ masterpiece dances onto the big screen with the puissance of a thoroughbred and the gracefulness of a butterfly, beckoning us on an intercontinental journey to discover the faces of humanity. Our tour guide, known only by his alias “JR,” is a provocative French artist who for years kept one step ahead of the Parisian graffiti police. In 2005, his persona non grata status changed when riots broke out in the suburbs of Paris. Armed with nothing more than a camera, JR captured the misunderstood “thugs” living on the outskirts of Paris’s refined, bourgeois neighborhoods and went to work illegally posting his close-up, super-sized portraits on buildings throughout middleclass neighborhoods. JR’s controversial, one might even say jarring, images paved the way for much-needed cross-cultural, cross-generational discussions about identity, freedom and harmony. When Paris officials plastered the outer walls of city hall with his portraits, JR knew he was on to something big.

If he could “show cracks in [his] society,” he mused, “what about other places?” And then he was off, like sure-footed Mercury, taking photos of human beings all over the globe and posting their King Kong size portraits on walls, broken bridges and buildings from the Middle East to Africa to South America. This story alone merits a documentary, but that will have to wait.

As it should, for Siddons’ film is much greater than one French graffiti artist turned global portrait photographer. And JR would be the first to say so. “Tell me what you stand for,” JR tells a captive audience in the opening scene, “and together we can turn the world inside out.” It’s a segment from his 2011 acceptance speech for the prestigious TED Prize, an honor bestowed upon JR for his wish to connect people through a global art project he calls Inside Out. And thus begins a moving portrait of his far-reaching, one might say quixotic, desire to engage the entire globe in a human art experience.

With a $1,000,000 cash prize, JR — who protects his true identity behind dark sunglasses and a fedora — sets out to put a face on the world’s human population. The project is free to anyone who wishes to participate as long as they abide by the following rules: 1) the photo must be a portrait; 2) no logos (JR refuses to take any corporate monies); and 3) no messages of hate. There is an evocative irony here, of course: the man without a face, encouraging others to plaster theirs across all four corners of the globe. Like a periscope, we pop in and out of rural and urban streets as thousands upon thousands of global citizens pose for one brief second, offering frightened faces, intimidating faces, happy faces, enraged faces, contemplative faces, saddened faces; a black and white emoticon not of the digital era but of human flesh and blood. With each face, we are drawn to the eyes, the mouth, the hairstyle, the expression in search of ourselves and those we do and do not know.

JR participates in the project by not participating. He arrives on scene, offers advice and, on more than one occasion, pushes the envelope. But for the most part, the enigmatic artist is there to bear witness to his dream in the making. “I don’t know how it is going to end up,” JR notes. “Or when it will end… Answers you better not know, because you can be surprised at any moment. That’s the beauty of it.” As photos are uploaded to the project’s Web site, JR and his team supersize them on an in-house printer and mail them back with JR’s instructions on how to paste them to the sides of public and private walls, buildings facades and windows — the secret of the artist revealed.

“If you give away all your secrets, then you’ll have nothing left to offer,” a homeless Haitian teen warns as he applies a thick coat of paste to a larger-than-life portrait on a crumbling wall.

“If you look at the Inside Out project, I have no more secrets,” JR declares.

“Fortunately for me. Unfortunately for you,” his protégé quips.

“No, it’s good. Secrets are meant to be shared… [it’s] no longer a secret… but a movement,” JR says as he grins.

And what a movement it is. The cast encompasses over 130,000 people, in over 100 countries, at over 10,000 locations (and counting). There are patchworks of people all over the world posing for local photographers. There is even a special photo truck designed to print portraits for immediate posting. It would have been interesting to learn more about this aspect of the project, but New Yorkers are in luck: the truck will be at New York City’s Time Square from April 22 – May 10, 2013.

It could be dizzying, if not for Siddons’ craft for storytelling. The documentary’s core narrative hones in on the experiences of four distinct communities and how the Inside Out project changed their lives: homeless teens struggling to survive under a bridge after Haiti’s 2010 earthquake, Tunisians navigating the arduous road toward democracy after the country’s 2010 revolution, a family in the West Bank who fear the wall being built will separate them, and Sioux living in the shadows of youth suicides on Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota.

This symbiotic relationship between art and humanity’s struggle isn’t foreign to award-winning director Siddons, whose 2009 documentary, Turn It Loose, followed the lives of six break dancers from around the world, coming together for a dance competition in South Africa. With the grit and compassion of a seasoned filmmaker, the 35-year-old Siddons allows his subjects’ raw stories to showcase political confrontations, environmental catastrophe, economic depravations and, more often than not, despair. Yet this isn’t yellow journalism for the sake of voyeurism. Siddons denounces the 24-hour news cycle where war and gore dominates by focusing on how art brings peace, hope and self-respect to those struggling under arduous circumstances. And in his latest film, looming larger than life are the portraits of mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, grandmothers and grandfathers amidst crumbling buildings, shantytowns and desolate landscapes — uplifting snapshots of those who inhabit the spaces and places of conflict. They are the faces of humanity, interconnected through JR’s dream.

In a country where the Wounded Knee memorial site is set to be sold to the highest bidder, in a land where almost 400,000 people still live in tents three years after the earthquake, and in new democracy still struggling with its past and present, one might ask: How far can art go to erase the hands of colonization, imperialism and conquest? The answer may be JR’s greatest secret of all, one in which each of us is invited to participate.

Rating: 4 out of 4 stars

“Inside Out: The People’s Art Project” opens to the public on Saturday, April 20 at 5:30 p.m. at the SVA Theatre in New York City (located at 333 West 23rd Street, between 8th and 9th avenue), with additional screenings on April 22 and April 25, and premieres on HBO May 20 at 9:00 p.m. ET/PT. For time and ticket information, please visit

Featured image: “Inside Out,” Native American, Highline Close-up, New York, USA, 2012. Photo Credit: JR.

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