After watching new film Have You Seen the Listers? I’m conflicted about the main character. He’s an internationally recognised street artist who has made the jump to respected white-walled galleries. You may not instantly know his name, but you’re likely to be familiar with the Joker-esque faces he has painted on walls in Sydney’s inner-city suburbs of Darlinghurst and Surry Hills (among others), and around Bondi. His troubled family life, on which the film spends plenty of time, almost always plays a backseat to his art. And he’s a bit of a poseur. He thrives on his notoriety as a loose cannon, and at times his art seems less important to him than his image.
But he’s nothing if not unpredictable. One bright morning, I’m supposed to meet Lister at a cafe to discuss the film. So it’s a bit of a surprise when director Eddie Martin turns up without him and says no one seems to know where Lister is right now. “Maybe he went out painting last night?” he says.
Martin’s not too shocked. Having just spent several years making a film about Lister, he’s learned to factor in some chaos. “He has his own hours,” Martin says. “I don’t begrudge him that.”
Whatever you think of him, Lister is a fascinating character worthy of one of Martin’s films. As he did with his skateboarding documentary All This Mayhem (2014) and his look at the life of Melbourne-based graffiti writer Justin "Jisoe" Hughes (Jisoe, 2005), Martin tells a compelling, personal story fuelled by success, drugs and ego.
Martin name checks some other art documentaries as inspirations, notably Exit Through the Gift Shop about British street artist Banksy and Cutie and the Boxer, about the chaotic 40-year marriage of famed boxing painter Ushio Shinohara and his wife, Noriko. He says it would be a tragedy if Lister did go undocumented. “Think of people like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat,” says Martin. “No one got to tell their stories while they were alive. Imagine if we had those docos. Can you imagine how amazing it would be?”
I don’t think Martin intends to compare Lister to those two giants of street art, but the comparison does stand up when we consider their fast lives. Haring and Basquiat died at 31 and 27 respectively. Lister has, at times, seemed at risk of burning out.
In his early twenties, Lister moved his young family to New York, and later, when he was already an established name, they moved into a squat in Sydney. He’s been a frequently absent father, and struggled with substance abuse. For the first half hour of this documentary he goes from strength to strength. But the lows are inevitable.
The most effective element of Have You Seen the Listers? is the wealth of archival footage. We follow Lister for more than two decades, from his teenage years, to art school, through the birth of his children (those last two happened during the same period) and through his career. He films everything. Lister gave Martin a crate of hard drives, with “a gazillion” hours of his art practice documented. But the footage Martin was most drawn to was the personal material.
Through all of the footage, Lister’s wife Annika and their three children are a constant presence. This is as much her story as his. They’re now separated, and it’s not always amicable. Surprisingly, Annika was interviewed extensively for the film, and is remarkably candid about her life with Lister.
“She wanted to tell her side of the story,” says Martin. “The supportive partner is a side we don’t hear often enough. Any great artist has demons and makes bad choices; that feeds back into the work. But Annika wanted to cut through that romantic myth of the artist who walks on water.”
And that she does. Troubled as he is, she is a constant reminder that the real victims of Lister’s success and lifestyle are his wife and kids.
Martin says he had no idea of the story he was getting when he started work on the film.
“I went in wide open,” he says. “No expectations. Being artists by nature, they were open to the process. It’s incredibly brave to put yourself out in the world like this.”
How does he think Lister comes off?
“I don’t want to answer that question because I find it so interesting how people read him depending on their own life and choices,” says Martin. “Some people don’t have any empathy for him, and others do. It’s up to you to make the assessment; it says a lot about yourself.”
And how about Lister’s opinion on the doco? “It’s incredibly emotional for him, but he seems happy with it. He’s a romantic at heart; he wants to change and fix things. However it pans out, his intentions are good.”
As we’re parting ways I catch a glimpse of Martin’s itinerary. Lister is due to head for the airport at midday. It’s 11am.
I do manage to catch Lister later. He calls me from the taxi on his way to the airport and apologises about his no-show. His phone was on silent under his bed and he slept in, he says.
Lister is different on the phone than in the documentary; more articulate, more focused, more grounded. Having never met him, but knowing a disproportionate amount about his private life, I open with something personal. How are things with Annika?
“They’ve been great in recent months,” he says, unperturbed. “Not so great in recent weeks. Getting better in recent days. Raising three children from two separate points of view is difficult. There’s so much you agree on, and there’s sometimes things you don’t. It’s a juggling act.”
I then ask him what he thinks about the film. “It’s an interesting question: how does one feel about a movie about oneself?” he says. “It continues. The cameras stop rolling and it still happens. It’s just how my life is.”
And is it a fair assessment of how your life is? “It’s absolutely as true as it could be. It’s my life, the good and the bad.”
That sounds scary, putting that side of you out there, I say. “It’s a little daunting,” he replies, “but fortune favours the brave. I’d rather be honest than be a fraud. I haven’t ever wanted to be an actor. Actors are glorified liars.”
But he is something of an actor. He films everything, from painting to arguing with Annika, to smoking ice in his studio.
With documentation a huge part of his process, it becomes clear that Lister’s life is an extension of his art. And this film, ostensibly about his work, ends up being a love letter to his family, in the only way he knows how: filtered through art and ego.
And hard work. He never stops. When I say this, he sounds almost weary.
“When I have stopped, everything has stopped,” he says. “It’s not possible when you have this … call it a career, or a lifestyle, or heaven forbid, a job. I have to be everywhere at once. People depend on me.”
And with that, I hear Lister give his driver a cab charge voucher and our time is up.
I’m still conflicted about Anthony Lister. He leans hard into the “tortured male artist” archetype, which is hard to sympathise with. And even the grand gestures he makes towards reuniting his family look suspiciously like stunts for the camera. But his life is a performance, and this film is the natural outcome of that.
I get the feeling that Lister would like to be remembered the way Martin saw him when he started digging through the crate of hard drives Lister gave him. “Nothing was in any kind of order,” says Martin. “Some bits were broken, but there was gold in there. It was a mess, but it was exciting.”
Have You Seen the Listers *is screening at Dendy Newtown. Watch the trailer.