SAN FRANCISCO - In September 2004, “My Kid Could Paint That” director Amir Bar-Lev stepped, somewhat gingerly, into the media frenzy surrounding a 4-year-old art prodigy named Marla Olmstead. Her abstract paintings, priced in the four-figure range and rapidly climbing toward five, were flying off gallery walls. Everyone from the Gap to the Crayola wanted a piece of Marla, because she wasn’t just talented, she was cute as a button.
But Bar-Lev, 34, a native of Berkeley, Calif., who got his start in the industry working on light shows for Bill Graham Presents, was taking the long view. He was interested in the effect Marla’s sudden celebrity would have on her family, all of them media novices, including Marla’s fresh-faced, all-American mom, Laura, and her gregarious father, Mark, an amateur painter. When Bar-Lev asked to be admitted into the Olmsteads’ home in Binghampton, N.Y., he told the family he hoped to find a deeper truth, a thing the news crews buzzing around might miss.
My Kid Could Paint That
Mark Olmstead, Laura Olmstead, Marla Olmstead, Anthony Brunelli, Elizabeth Cohen, Michael Kimmelman
(Sony Pictures Classics; US theatrical: 5 Oct 2007 (Limited release); 2007)
After a year of interviewing and observing the family, he did find deeper truths, but not the sort he was expecting. “My Kid Could Paint That” evolved into a study of authenticity and human nature. It’s easily one of the most thought-provoking films of the year. But in his quest for honesty, no one came out unscathed - neither the filmmaker nor the family.
Everything began to change when, five months into Bar-Lev’s filmmaking, “60 Minutes” aired a Charlie Rose segment suggesting that Marla was not and could not be the author of her art, at least not entirely. The producers had set up a hidden camera that showed Marla painting, but at a much more “kid-like” level than her finished canvases revealed.
Bar-Lev captured Laura and Mark’s stunned, disbelieving expressions as they sat in their living room, seeing their daughter’s talents - and their word - being questioned on national TV.
“I continued to believe it was possible that the Charlie Rose thing had no merit whatsoever,” Bar-Lev said during a recent interview in San Francisco. “My editor reminded me recently that I said in our first conversation, `We might not be done shooting. We may go up and get the footage that proves that “60 Minutes” was completely off base.’”
“I was a big, big believer,” Bar-Lev said.
It was hard for him not to be. This was only his second feature-length film (the first was “Fighter,” released in 2001) and he wasn’t a cynic. He’d grown fond of, and close enough to the family so that Laura confided in him - on camera - and Marla and her little brother, Zane, often asked him to put down the camera and come play with them.
“I used to have these hilarious exchanges with Marla where I’d be trying to get B-roll (background footage) and she’d say, `Amir, make Zane give me the toy.’ I’d be hiding behind the camera, out of the frame going, `I’m not here!’”
But he WAS there, and in his filmmaking he had to acknowledge it.
“It’s sort of a disingenuous thing that many documentaries sort of pretend it’s not a screen in a cinema but a window, and you’re peering through that window, seeing life in some other space,” he said. “It’s not the case.”
Bar-Lev found himself trying to prove the Olmsteads’ case on film. Then he documented their attempts to prove their case. The waters got murkier and murkier, until he was so wrapped up in the story that he felt his only choice was to speak directly to the camera, addressing his own concerns. His anguish is evident as he breaks his own fourth wall.
Imagine a documentary that’s as intense as “Capturing the Friedmans,” but where the filmmaker and the dysfunctional family he’s exposing actually have it out.
“That film is a favorite of mine and definitely a point of inspiration for me, but there’s one big difference,” Bar-Lev said. “Both films allow the viewer to make up their own mind, but that film pretends at its own equanimity, and in my film I do admit that I have a perspective.”
He said he’s not interested in bashing the Olmsteads, although a lot of the media outlets he’s talked to during his publicity tour have pressed him to do so. But undeniably, there were hard feelings. The Olmsteads sent a statement to Sundance, where “basically, they say they are heartbroken with some of the choices I made,” he said. The regret is obvious in his voice. But so is his conviction that he made good choices.
And the fact is, his film still leaves plenty of room for argument. In the space of 10 minutes during this round of interviews in San Francisco, he talked to two journalists with very different interpretations of what was true and false in the Olmsteads’ saga.
Those differing views, he pointed out, are similar to perceptions of modern art itself. There are just as many people who look at a Jackson Pollock and think, `Hey, my kid could paint that’ as think, `That’s great art.’ It’s really up to the individual to judge a painting’s merits by how they react to it.
“The same goes for the film,” he said. “You’re not going to get these tidy answers that tell you what to think, or lead you by your nose as to what to think. You have to make up your own mind.
“It’s kind of a happy coincidence that the (Marla) paintings look like Rorschach ink blots, because you do see in them kind of what you want to see,” he said. “There’s times when I want to believe that a 4-year-old gets smiled on by the gods of creativity and can do these things, and that the world works that way. And then there are other times when my cynical side takes hold. Or I won’t even say `cynical.’ My realistic side.”