Could Your Kid Paint That? An Interview with Director Amir Bar-Lev

Here’s a great night out: dinner, drinks perhaps, and then Amir Bar-Lev’s fascinating documentary My Kid Could Paint That (opening tomorrow at the Lagoon Cinema.) The story of four-year-old Marla Olmstead, the little girl who made abstract paintings that sold for nearly a half million dollars, My Kid will have you and your cohorts debating for hours afterward. Going into the film you might have opinions about whether or not this child’s parents are charlatans or saints, about the validity of modern art, about what we seek as patrons of said art. I guarantee that when you emerge you’ll be rethinking everything.

Before watching the movie, my wife and I were pretty much at odds about Marla–I was convinced she didn’t create these paintings, my wife thought there was a good chance she was a prodigy. When it was over, our opinions were pretty much reversed.

I had the great pleasure to interview My Kid Could Paint That director Amir Bar-Lev and ask him about the reaction to his film, what brought him to make it, and whether we’ll ever get to the bottom of this mystery.

Rake: You’ve been to a number of showings that have involved post-screening Q & A’s. What’s been the general reaction?

Bar-Lev: I’m happy to say that in straw polls we’ve taken after the shows we’ve found that 20% still think the parents are completely innocent. This gets at what I was trying to do with this film. I wanted to occupy a middle ground. The TV outlets encouraged both extremes: Marla’s either Mozart or a con.

Rake: What brought you to this story?

Bar-Lev: I read the article in The New York Times, which spoke to my own cynicism about modern art. You can assess a piano prodigy, for instance–they either play well or they don’t. But with modern art, there are questions of intentionality, and this four-year-old’s paintings challenged that. These questions are also important when judging the paintings she made on camera and off-camera. Who are we to say that one painting is more polished than another? Are there any standards?

When I first met the Olmsteads I realized that this movie was going to be a family drama. At first, I really had no skepticism about the girl. The film happened in stages, and at first I didn’t actually see any of the things that later on made me question their story. That’s what this movie turned into–it’s story about stories, how we project what we want to onto Marla’s tale.

When the “60 minutes” piece aired [that suggested the father coached and/or actually did the painting] I knew my documentary just got more interesting. I felt I desperately needed to get more footage to ease my nagging doubts.

As time went on, making this film became very difficult. I didn’t sleep well for six months. There’s an interview in there that sums it up, when the mother’s telling me that she needs me to trust them, and I have to tell them I’m not sure. Going over that footage, it’s awful–when you hear your voice in an uncomfortable situation… well, I was barely capable of talking. I was sitting on documentary gold but it still didn’t feel right, having spent so much time with the family. You’re basically accusing them of lying, which is highly unpleasant especially when they trust you. But I had to hold to my own standards and get at the truth.

Rake: It’s interesting, because there’s that scene in the car where you’re expressing your concerns out loud. You put your own doubts in the movie itself, and made yourself part of the story.

Bar-Lev: I didn’t intend for that scene to happen. One of my interns was recording it, and fortunately they didn’t stop the tape. My role was minimal, but it was difficult to edit and it took a long time. It was emotional, complicated.

As I said, I discovered was that this film is about adults, about people projecting what they want onto Marla and her art. It’s like Chauncey Gardner in Being There. Her childlike simplicity brings out things in people.

The film is also about how people control information. The parents so desperately wanted their name cleared. That’s what they wanted from me. As I said, My Kid Could Paint That is a story about stories, and less about greed. The parents want that control. But it’s a Faustian bargain. By deciding to remain in the light, they actually lose more control.

Rake: You really wanted to get footage of Marla painting, but watching the film one gets the sense that you were never satisfied. At least I wasn’t.

Bar-Lev: I did pick the best footage of Marla painting but it never truly answered the questions. Marla would never talk about her art. It was a puzzle–at first I thought she was being bashful. But when I look at the footage of “Ocean” [the first painting captured entirely on film, though not by Bar-Lev] it’s more bewildering. You do see her employ a variety of techniques, but is it as good as the others? Can we see the same squiggle over and over again, suggesting genius? And again, is it fair to make those comparisons?

Rake: It’s fascinating to me how one can come into this movie thinking one thing, very strongly in fact, and emerge questioning those beliefs. I was convinced the father was a con, and while I still question his veracity, the closer you get to the supposed con, it doesn’t quite add up.

Bar-Lev: I saw this as an existentialist story. There’s no ten commandments. While there’s certainly right or wrong, it’s not in terms of art. When you stop and think about the facts of this case, no scenario makes sense. You can tell yourself that there’s no way Marla’s doing the paintings, that the father painted them or really coached her. But then the mother clearly believed her daughter painted these, so how did the father hide his own involvement from her? How did he hide it from everyone? Sometimes I think the only way to explain it is that they really have nothing to hide.

It’s like that Escher painting, with all the steps that go up and down and all lead into one another. There’s no end, no easy way out.

Rake: What does the family think of My Kid Could Paint That?

Bar-Lev: Marla’s mother actually said “It’s a great film, I just wish it wasn’t about us.” I’ve encouraged them to lend a dissenting voice, and even offered them an opportunity to do the DVD commentary. But they’re distancing themselves from it. They don’t want to publicize the film in any way.

Rake: I did appreciate that you avoided pigeonholing certain people, like Anthony Brunelli, the art dealer, and Stuart Simpson, one of Marla’s earliest patrons. If you were to make this a more good vs. evil story, Brunelli could come off as a cad, and Simpson as perhaps a fool. But they’re good people who both who truly believe in Marla.

Bar-Lev: Anthony’s a true believer. He’s a salesman in the best sense of the word. Because he’s one of those salesmen who truly believe in their product, and that it has meaning. The paintings get sold for as much as humanly possible because of his belief, and not because he’s trying to scam anyone. He’s earnest.

Stuart Simpson follows this story closely, and will chime in on blogs and chatrooms defending Marla. He credits her with helping him follow his lifelong dream of becoming an art dealer.

They’re all very civil when defending Marla.

Rake: Do you think we’ll ever know the true story?

Bar-Lev: I think we’ll know in ten years or so. Something will happen. When Marla gets older, she’ll tell us.