Amir Bar-Lev's documentary My Kid Could Paint That premiered Sunday morning at Sundance, already the subject of buying speculation after last week's TV deal with A&E Indie Films and one of the more eagerly anticipated competition titles among festivalgoers. The anticipation paid off: Bar-Lev's film is a meta-mix of doc ethics, art politics and family drama, a brilliantly paced mystery tale of a Binghamton, N.Y., 4-year-old whose abstract paintings develop a lucrative following before its authorship is drawn into question by increasingly skeptical media -- including Bar-Lev himself.
"It's documentary gold," says a devastated Laura Olmstead, tossing her mic aside and walking off-camera one last time as Bar-Lev grills her and her husband Mark. The subject: their young daughter Marla, who became an international art world star when her colorful work's gallery popularity makes the Binghamton Press & Sun-Bulletin before The New York Times catches on and, eventually, the global media comes to town. While negotiating virtually instant fame and fortune ($300,000 for her first solo show), the Olmstead family grapples with protecting their daughter from overexposure; when innocuous talk-show appearances give way to more probing inquiries, a 60 Minutes II expose sends the Olmsteads reeling on the defensive and Bar-Lev -- who had been filming Marla for months -- into a doc-making crisis when the Olmsteads come looking for his footage of Marla's work to exonerate them.
But to hear Bar-Lev tell it -- both in My Kid and at today's Q&A -- his trust in the Olmsteads as subjects may prove impossible to reconcile with his persistent sense of doubt.
"This is a situation where I didn’t have any proof either way and I really did have to base my feelings on assessing the paintings. I did go into this process sort of having that 'my kid could paint that' attitude a little bit, wondering how do you judge abstract art? What is the difference between that and this?"
In an interview last week with The Reeler, Bar-Lev made note of both a Park City installation of Marla Olmstead's work during the Sundance Film Festival as well as the expected attendance of Mark and Laura Olmstead. But Press & Sun-Bulletin reporter Elizabeth Cohen, who wrote the original news story about Marla Olmstead and was featured as a subject in My Kid Could Paint That, arrived onstage with a statement from Laura Olmstead, whom she said decided against a Sundance trip at the last minute.
"When we met Amir Bar-Lev three years ago and he expressed interest in our daughter's work, we accepted him into our home and lives," Cohen said, reading from the statement. "But we are heartbroken by some of the choices he made in his portrayal of our family in the editing of this film. We feel the question of the authenticity of our daughter's paintings has been answered. Marla has created many pieces on film, one of which, in Mr. Bar-Lev's opinion was in keeping with her best work. Our daughter's almost 7 now and has become aware of the skepticism surrounding her art, which confuses her but also flatters her. In her innocence, she feels complimented by the idea that people think she could not compose her paintings alone. We also felt dismayed by this, and it's our hope that the media will lay the issue to rest at last. The controversy over her authorship has been painful and humiliating for our family."
It seemed fairly obvious to me just in viewing the pieces on their own (without the commentary from child psychologists, collectors, Charlie Rose and Times art critic Michael Kimmelman) that the paintings in the first Marla Olmstead show boast a complexity and construction that is entirely absent from her subsequent work. Whether it means she changed her style or approach or aesthetic is anybody's guess, but execution of the girl painting on camera in Bar-Lev's film pretty clearly lacks the technical sophistication required to pull off the detail pointed out by observers onscreen.
For his part, Bar-Lev disagreed with Laura Olmstead's notion in the film that all of Marla's paintings look alike, as did pretty much everyone in the audience. But he expressed sadness at the family's frustration with him. "It's been a really painful process," he said. "I really like the Olmsteads a lot, and I feel for them. I didn't omit footage of painting, but I have picked and choosed [sic] from a year of time and turned it into an hour-and-a-half film. It's an epically complicated process. I'll give you an example. I shot for a week or so right after 60 Minutes, and you can imagine, like any human beings, that week they had their ups and downs. They weren't totally devastated every second, but I shot footage of them having a laugh every once in a while. Now I have to turn that week of time into a two-minute scene.
"And so then I'm kind of faced with a decision of eight shots to work with," he continued. "Do I show one shot of them laughing and then one sot of them crying and then another shot of them angry? Or do I omit the one of them angry because I've decided that [during] that beat of film, they're depressed? They're devastated? The only thing stopping you from really picking and choosing and telling a story that didn't really happen... you have to ask yourself these moral questions. Is this how it really happened? I tried to do that the best I could."
Bar-Lev then invoked a quote from a recent book review, itself cribbed from Anthony Swofford's book Jarhead: "What follows is neither true nor false. It's what I know." And by the end of the week, count on what follows with My Kid Could Paint That to be something an entire festival audience will want to know.
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