MY KID COULD PAINT THAT
Director: Amir Bar-Lev
Producer: Amir Bar-Lev
Executive Producer: John Battsek
SONY HD Cam
U.S.A., 2006, 81 min.
*Is four-year-old Marla Olmstead a child prodigy? This bashful little girl from a middle-class family in Binghamton, New York, rocketed from total obscurity to international renown and sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings. Marla was compared to Kandinsky, Pollock, even Picasso. Her work captured the imagination of the world. Art openings, limousines, and television appearances became part of the Olmstead family's normal routine. Then, just as quickly, the media turned the tables. 60 Minutes aired a segment casting doubt on the authenticity of Marla's work, and the Olmsteads' world changed in an instant.
Is Marla a genius of abstract expressionism? Or is she a petite pawn in an elaborate hoax, an innocent victim exploited by parents who sold her for the glow of the spotlight and the lure of the almighty dollar? Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev wisely allows audience members to draw their own conclusions.
Deftly interweaving multiple narrative threads, My Kid Could Paint That scrutinizes society's obsession with child prodigies, explores the complex debate over what makes something art, questions the media's creation and subsequent destruction of heroes, and even examines the ethics of documentary storytelling. Bar-Lev's film, a portrait of the artist as a young girl, is itself a fascinating work of art.
*Summary by David Courier, SUNDANCE Film Programmer
My Kid Could Paint That is one of the best documentaries I have ever seen. It doesn’t sound like the most fascinating subject to create a documentary about, but before the film has ended, it has debated what ‘art’ stands for, and argued about the definition of a ‘documentary.’ I haven’t seen a film in a long time that had me flip-flopping my opinions from one scene to the next. Is Marla a talented artist? Is she being used by her parents to promote her father’s art? Are my opinions forced upon me by the views of the documentarian? Is this filmmaker any good at what he does or is he just lucky? Is there such a thing as an unbiased view of any topic? These are just a few of the questions that this film will have audience members pondering well into the night. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it is still being made. The filmmaker, Amir Bar-Lev, gave a Q&A after the screening and was still being recorded in case some comments he made might be useful in the documentary. What a wealth of ideas this film has brought up if it needs to continue its arguments and ideas after the film has been premiered!
The film immediately jumps into the story of Marla Olmstead, a little girl capable of painting masterpieces hung over gallery walls around the world. Everyone says when they walk through a museum and see a solid black piece of canvas on a wall worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, that they could do that. When we are talking about this type of painting, abstract Pollack-style splatters on a canvas, what really counts as art? The appraisal of abstract art becomes an intrinsic and instinctual decision, what individuals see in the paintings. At one point, Bar-Lev asks some patrons at one of Marla’s opening what they see in her opinions. One woman goes on at length to describe a door opening in a swirl of paint to reveal a sonogram of a baby girl. She said the painting brings up emotions of joy and innocence in her. I couldn’t see anything she was describing. In the end, is the appreciation of abstract art just like looking into the sky and imagining shapes in the clouds? This issue becomes much more intriguing in Marla’s post-60 MINUTES segment, when everyone is intent on making sure that she is painting these paintings. Why is her later work considered to be less creative and professional than her earlier works? Its swirls and splatters of paint, people!
Everything in this documentary hinges on the 60 MINUTES segment done on Marla. Bar-Lev has been filming the Olmsteads for a few months at this point, and is filming in their living room when 60 MINUTES comes on and a child psychiatrist claims that Marla can not have painted the paintings that her parents claim she has done. The look on the family’s faces is shocking and sad. This special establishes a rift in the Olmstead family and a rift between the family and Bar-Lev. He is doubtful of the 60 MINUTES claim, yet he wants to redeem the family by filming Marla making a painting from start to finish. He runs into a little trouble with Mr. Olmstead, a man who was a painter in his earlier years, and is rumored to be the true creator of Marla’s pieces. When the dad is with Marla and encouraging her to paint, Marla says some incriminatory things, such as “Oh, my brother painted that one,” or most shockingly, “Dad, help me with this one.” Mr. Olmstead gets a little nervous and claims that Marla is playing with the camera, being a little punchy and combative. He claims that Marla is a lot smarter than people realize and she likes to play and push buttons. Bar-Lev shows these scenes in the documentary and it is hard to know what to believe.
Finally, Bar-Lev is able to film Marla painting an entire painting by herself, over a number of days, with a hidden camera. It is called OCEAN and is immediately dismissed by art scholars as a child’s doodlings. It is said to carry none of the maturity and skill of Marla’s earlier works. Bar-Lev reveals OCEAN and some of Marla’s work side by side in the film and it truly difficult to decide if OCEAN is made by a different painter, or if it is just a different painting than Marla’s other works. I know I still can’t decide if OCEAN is as good as the others, or hell, if any of her paintings are good at all.
As the months pass, Bar-Lev confesses to the camera that he is becoming more disillusioned with the idea that these are Marla’s paintings. He just can’t decide what to believe. As he reaches the 1-year anniversary of when he started filming the Olmsteads, he sits the whole family down for a talk about how the year went. This confrontation scene is tremendous in breaking down how a documentary works. The parents ask Bar-Lev what he believes and the filmmaker confesses that he isn’t really sure anymore. This infuriates the Olmsteads as they now believe that this documentary will become slanted against them, and after all the time they have devoted to Bar-Lev and his camera, this feels like a massive betrayal. They feel as if Bar-Lev is calling them liars after being with the family for a full year. At one point, Mrs. Olmstead starts to cry in frustration and through tears, yells out, “Oh, now I’m crying in front of the camera, this is documentary gold for you, isn’t it?” Bar-Lev doesn’t quite know what to say and he leaves the family to edit this documentary. In all fairness, this documentary comes out pretty even-handed, allowing the choice to be made by the audience whether the Olmstead’s are committing fraud or Marla has just entered a new phase in her painting. The struggle continues for the Olmstead family, apparently Mr. Olmstead has released a DVD of Marla painting her newest works, claiming this proof of her work, and that these paintings are just as good as Marla’s earlier ones.
The Q & A after the show was a good one. There were quite a few angry audience members who felt that Bar-Lev has a responsibility to the Olmstead family not to show his film to the public, even with an even-handed viewpoint. He is still on the fence; weighing his personal relationship with the Olmsteads against his belief that Marla’s paintings now are not nearly as good as they were before. He talked about his efforts to create a fair documentary and how it is a faulty claim that documentaries are a window on the world. There is ALWAYS a viewpoint, a slant, an opinion. The editing of conversations and scenes create artifice in a piece of filmmaking striving for authenticity. One misspoken word of voice-over, 10 seconds of an interview cut, can form an opinion forced on the audience, and it is nearly impossible to see the documentary subjects through a clear glass and not the lens of the filmmaker.
I have no answers for any of these questions about art, filmmaking, or the responsibility of documentaries. I still can’t decide whether Marla created those early paintings or not, though in hindsight, I do feel doubtful that the Olmstead family could have pulled off such a massive conspiracy for this long. These are questions that will be argued as long as art or film exists and My Kid Could Paint That is a fascinating reminder that we need to keep asking them.