Street art comes to life in Montreal doc

For three years a mysterious stencil artist known only as 'Roadsworth' turned Montreal's turning lanes into zippers, crosswalks into giant footprints and intersections into birthday cakes. When filmmaker Alan Kohl found out that his bandmate, Peter Gibson, was Roadsworth, he started making a film about his art which turned into a doc about who owns public space.
April 30, 2009

When Alan Kohl asked Peter Gibson (aka Montreal-based stencil artist Roadsworth) if he could make a documentary with Gibson as the subject, Gibson was unsure. Up until that point the artist had been anonymously stenciling his city’s streets, cleverly turning street markings into new images. Shortly after he allowed Kohl, and his film collective Loaded Pictures, to follow him with a camera he was caught stenciling a city street and was arrested and charged with 53 counts of mischief, facing possible jail time and up to $10,000 in fines. At that time the doc, which Kohl had been planning to make as a short film featuring other artists, evolved into the feature doc Roadsworth: Crossing the Line.

In Kohl’s film, graffiti literally comes to life. An owl perched on a line in the road turns its head to follow the pedestrians, birthday candles flicker at a crosswalk and birds break out of the pavement and fly into the sky. Kohl chose to animate Roadsworth’s work because most of it has faded from Montreal’s streets. ‘When you watch a movie [about his art], you don’t get the same experience as you would having walked over it and being a surprised pedestrian,’ says Kohl. ‘I guess the animation helped bring back that sense of surprise a little bit and bring us back that wow factor that the city is coming alive.’

Soon after Gibson’s arrest, the people of Montreal responded, either defending his work as beautifying the city streets, or denouncing him as a menace. He also began getting commissions from cities all over the world to pack up his spray cans and stencils and paint their towns. The biggest irony was that even the City of Montreal, which was in the midst of prosecuting Gibson, hired him to paint a bike lane.

Kohl’s production company and filmmaking collective, Loaded Pictures, focuses on artistic, social and political subject matter. Thus, his doc, which has been to the Rencontres Internationales du documentaire festival, SXSW and will screen at Toronto’s Hot Docs next week, makes perfect sense for the mandate of the group, following Gibson’s trial and his tour around the world as his art is both questioned and praised.

Like many prodcos that focus on social political issues, Loaded Pictures likes to make its films more than just something viewers watch and walk away from, so Kohl is looking for interest from school and youth-oriented groups where he can show the film. Kohl says that a segment that didn’t make it into the film featured Gibson speaking to a group of eight-year-olds about why he creates illegal art. ‘He said, ‘Because I’m bombarded by messages, we all are,” remembers Kohl. Gibson got the class to call out some of the signs they see everyday, such as billboards, and explained to the kids how he was counteracting these signs with his work. ‘Those are the [messages] we don’t choose. They’re just there, we don’t have much choice in them, and he thought it would be nice to subvert those.’

Kohl’s prodco has a second doc in the festival, H2Oil, an investigation of the unregulated development of oil sands in Alberta and the people who are fighting against it. H2Oil, directed by Shannon Walsh, gets its world premiere at Hot Docs on May 8, while Roadsworth: Crossing the Line screens May 8 and 10.

About The Author
Justin Anderson joined Realscreen as senior staff writer in 2021, reporting and writing stories for the newsletter and magazine. During his 20-year career he’s filled a variety of roles as a writer and editor at a number of media organizations, covering news and current affairs as well as business, tech, the film and music industries and plenty in between. He’s also spent time behind the scenes in television production, having written everything from voiceover scripts for documentaries to marketing copy. He has a degree in Journalism from Toronto Metropolitan University (formerly Ryerson University).