MY KID COULD PAINT THAT directed and written by Amir Bar-Lev. A Mongrel Media release. 82 minutes. Opens Friday (October 19). Rating: NNNNN
Rarely is a documentary film maker in the right place at the right time to capture an unpredicted crisis on film. When this happens, the film becomes a benchmark of the genre.
My Kid Could Paint That joins the ranks of classics like Warrendale (Allan King) and Gimme Shelter (the Maysles brothers).
I caught up with director Amir Bar-Lev at the Toronto International Film Festival minutes before he hopped a plane to New York. I wanted to know how his portrait of four-year-old abstract painter Marla Olmstead had managed to throw both the authenticity of her paintings and of the media reports about her into question.
"When I set out to make the film, I was interested in the idea of judging abstract art through the work of a child prodigy. But the 60 Minutes exposé suggesting that her father played a role in her paintings was a turning point for the film and for the Olmsteads. As a filmmaker, I was confronted with the possibility that I was reporting an untruth."
Bar-Lev had film rolling when the family watched the 60 Minutes report and bagged a raw documentary moment by capturing their disbelief.
"It's complicated emotionally when something like this happens. I knew immediately that my film had just become more interesting, that I had struck documentary gold. At the same time, I'd become friendly with the Olmsteads. I wanted to include this complicated relationship that documentary filmmakers have with their subjects."
After 60 Minutes, the Olmsteads want Bar-Lev's film to restore their credibility. The director wants the truth, but that's often a tricky business, raising the age-old question, Whose truth is it anyway?
Plenty of doubts are raised, but it's left to the audience to judge if the paintings are real or a hoax.
It would have been easy for Bar-Lev to portray Marla's father as the scam artist shown in the 60 Minutes report. A frustrated abstract painter who spends time alone with the kids while his wife's at work, he's with Marla whenever she paints and succeeds vicariously through her gallery openings, media attention and high prices.
Fortunately, Bar-Lev takes a more intriguing route, exploring the media stories about Marla along with the shaping of his own documentary.
He shows how journalists generate audience appeal by highlighting a chosen fraction of a story, whether it's introducing Marla as a wonder kid or bringing her down.
He looks at the story from every angle, including his own ethical dilemma, which makes the film fascinating.
"I spent a year filming and a year in the editing room. There was a child involved, and I felt a responsibility about that. I tried to make an existentialist film, a film that is truthfully subjective."
MY KID COULD PAINT THAT (Amir Bar-Lev) Rating: NNNNN
Carefully structured, honest and raw, this low-key doc is compelling from start to finish.
But when Amir Bar-Lev becomes suspicious of his main subject, his sweet film turns murky. It's never clear if four-year-old Marla Olmstead's sophisticated abstract paintings are the work of a prodigy or a marketing hoax. Her father and a local gallery owner sell the paintings for incredible sums.
In one scene, Marla admits to her dad that her two-year-old brother, Zane, painted one canvas in her new gallery show. Dad ignores her. You'd think he'd want the public getting the right artist when paintings sell for $25,000.
But the question of whether Marla really painted her works is a small part of the layered story, which includes a sharp exposé of the shaping of news reports. And Bar-Lev's atypical relationship to his subjects is fascinating.