The artist Lee Mingwei, featured in the documentary “Gift, creates participatory art installations. (Matson Films/Gaudete Films)
Reporter

Rating: (2.5 stars)

In the film “Gift,” we are introduced to four fascinating real people: Lee Mingwei, Giorgio De Finis, Marcus Alfred and Michelle Lessans.

Born in Taiwan, Lee is a globe-trotting artist who creates participatory installations and art actions, such as “Sonic Blossom,” in which museumgoers in New York, Cleveland, Paris and other cities were treated to quasi-private recitals by talented singers wandering through galleries. De Finis is an Italian curator of contemporary art who has helped transform a former sausage factory in Rome — also home to some 200 squatters — into an inhabited art space known as the Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere of Metropoliz. Alfred is an indigenous Kwakwaka’wakw carver from British Columbia who gives away a large part of the fruits of his labor at his people’s annual potlatch gathering. Lessans, who goes by the nickname Smallfry, is a Bay Area beekeeper who, a few years ago, created Beezus Christ Super Car, a bee-shaped vehicle built — at Oakland’s NIMBY maker space — to dispense honey and mead at the Burning Man festival.

Most of these details emerge only gradually — if at all — in this un­or­tho­dox documentary (though “nonfiction essay” is probably a better description of its form and intent). There are no on-screen titles identifying names, places or dates — most of the previous paragraph I looked up online — but the film’s unifying message is clear: All its subjects are involved in giving something away.

The film was inspired by Lewis Hyde’s 1983 book “The Gift,” which explored the notion of the gift economy in a cultural context, and director Robin McKenna sprinkles enigmatic lines from the book through the movie, such as “The imagination creates the future.”

But “Gift” can be a little frustrating at times. Its central point is like a Zen koan: As Alfred puts it at one point, “We’re giving away everything we have to become wealthy.” It’s a neat paradox, and it prompts an intriguing question: What is the value of art? Lee says he doesn’t have an answer, and neither does the film. McKenna is more interested in leaving the question hanging. (In one exchange, Lee folds paper money into origami and gives it away, inviting the recipient to do anything she wants with it, including spend it. To be honest, it’s probably now more valuable as art than cash.)


Bay Area beekeeper (and social worker) Michelle “Smallfry” Lessans is featured in the documentary “Gift.” (Matson Films/Gaudete Films)

But important little details, like how bills are paid — there are always bills — are kept deliberately, and sometimes maddeningly, vague. Smallfry has a day job as a social worker, as it turns out. Alfred’s art is highly collectible. Lee’s works are underwritten by corporations and wealthy donors. And De Finis, who works as a museum director, invites the residents of Metropoliz — who face the constant threat of eviction — to help maintain the art space, which also solicits donations from visitors. The popularity of Metropoliz as a cultural destination, in fact, is probably what keeps the police from kicking out the families who live there. The unnamed little girl who acts as a tour guide to the space is, by the way, adorable.

“Gift” doesn’t really get into such unpleasant details as financing, and that’s okay. The idea that culture has a value beyond cash — that both sides of the equation, both the getters and the givers, are enriched by something that doesn’t have a price tag, or at least not an obvious one — is a beautiful thought. It applies just as easily to, say, the Smithsonian as to a cup of honey wine from a woman in an art-car. It may even be the real art here.

Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable, except a little smoking. 90 minutes.