Photo Credit: Nicolas Canniccioni Robin McKenna's "Gift" opens at Laemmle's Monica Film Center

I’m leaving town for a little while, so for the next few weeks I’ll be sharing reviews of some few films I’ve previewed that are coming out soon. The first, “Gift,” opens tomorrow at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center, is a documentary that extols the value of creativity in a consumer-based world, demonstrating how the gift of art can strengthen human connections. (Don’t confuse this documentary with an earlier horror film called “The Gift.” They couldn’t be more different.)

Inspired by “The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World” by Lewis Hyde, published in 1983, director Robin McKenna’s film takes us around the world to places where art becomes its own currency, freely given and shared in different circumstances.

Artist Bill Viola describes “The Gift” as “the best book I have read on what it means to be an artist in today’s economic world.” Filmmaker McKenna has her own interpretation of the “gift economy,” where art becomes the means by which community is created, shared and passed along, taking us into four different corners of the globe where this spirit thrives.

We travel to British Columbia during the planning and creation of a potlatch by indigenous people; head to Rome where refugees and immigrants are housed in a derelict building that becomes a live-in museum; to New Zealand where an artist invites museum-goers to share a flower with a stranger or to enjoy the gift of music; and to San Francisco to witness an artist/beekeeper/mead-maker who creates a Burning Man attraction to share her golden elixir.

Comparing and contrasting how different cultures approach the giving and sharing, each of the stories weaves in and out of the others.


Along the Pacific Northwest coast, the potlach ceremony (the word means “to give”) marks important occasions in the lives of the Kwakwaka’wakw First Nations people. In this film we watch the entire process unfold as the tribe’s youngest chief makes it all happen, from the logging of the tree that will become a ceremonial mask, to the craft and art of carving and painting it, training young children for traditional dances, the gathering of the goods and gifts that will be given to all the guests who attend. The more gifts given, the higher the status is achieved by the potlatch host.


Perhaps the story with the strongest political message is based in Rome, where visual artists have come together to turn a former slaughterhouse into Metropolitiz, a live-in museum. They have free reign to create paintings, sculptures, drawings and installations within the walls of this derelict building where hundreds of refugee migrants have taken up residence. As the price of real estate rises (it’s housed next to a luxury car dealership), keeping the “museum” alive for these families becomes an act of social activism, protecting them from the real estate wolves circling the property.

Mingwei Lee

Mingwei Lee has been heavily influenced by Lewis Hyde’s book. Imagine a stranger walking up to you with a flower, offering it and asking you to enjoy it then pass it on to someone else. Or, while you are perusing a painting, someone in a costume as vivid as the canvases around you taps you on the shoulder to ask if they can offer you a gift. If you agree, you may walk to another area where you will be serenaded by an opera singer treating you to a one-on-one performance of a poignant aria. You could also have an item of clothing repaired as you tell the artist the story of that item, or you can play with, then keep, a piece of origami made of money. In these ways, he turns art into a unique gift. These vignettes play out in Auckland, New Zealand within the galleries and outside the museum.


Social worker Michelle Lessans raises bees, and for her entry to Burning Man, she is trying to create a Bee-Car, an actual moving, steerable vehicle decorated as a large honeybee that she will drive around the Playa, dispensing the mead she makes from the honey her bees give her. Why Burning Man? Because it is a huge annual gathering, where everything is given freely, no money exchanges hands and nothing can be bought or sold.

GIFT is as much a lesson in how to receive as it is about giving. It isn’t a film about the value of art but it is about how art can be transformative as an act of creativity and generosity.

GIFT opens tomorrow at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center. For advance tickets, visit:

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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