When documentary director Amir Bar-Lev approached Mark and Laura Olmstead about making a film on their four-year old daughter Marla, whose abstract paintings had been exalted by some as the works of a prodigy, his motive was straightforward but complex. “I was attracted to the story by the question of the lack of standards in art, in modern art,” he explained during a recent Dallas interview,” and about what a strange thing it is to say that a four-year old is prodigious in abstract art. And my initial attitude was to throw up one’s hands and say this is all variations of a herd mentality and it’s all in the eye of the beholder, and if somebody is good at marketing, then they can win the herd over.”
But though that issue remains a centerpiece of his finished picture, “My Kid Could Paint That,” the tale of the Binghamton, New York tyke and her parents became much more complicated a few months after Bar-Amir began filming them when Charlie Rose broadcast a “60 Minutes” segment on them suggesting that the girl might not actually have painted the canvases ascribed to her—or at least might have been substantially helped by her dad. The director found his own views on the matter shifting as he continued the project—and the ambiguity remains even now.
“The thing that makes it, for me, a compelling mystery is that almost no way you add it up makes total sense,” he said. And I know that for myself, I was struggling a couple of days ago to try and describe it, and I thought of an interesting metaphor. Remember those Escher lithographs where it’s like a waterfall falling down and down and down, but by the fourth fall it’s suddenly falling on itself, so that you know that somehow, though you can’t quite see it, but somehow you’ve taken some erroneous logical step? That’s what I felt about what I was trying to sleuth out, what actually happened. Because you get to a point where you say, ‘I think I’ve got it, this is what must have happened,’ but then you follow the ramifications of what that means and arrive at something that doesn’t make any sense. So then you flipflop…and you start following that to its logical ramifications, and none of them are sensible. So I think it makes for an interesting mystery, and audiences are pretty divided about what they conclude.”
And that led Bar-Lev to complete the circle back to the issue he began the project with. “What I’ve come to understand a little bit better,” he said, “is, who are you to decide? Well, you’re you. Just because there aren’t these objective standards doesn’t mean that you can’t draw your own conclusions about art. In this particular case, in order to solve the mystery for yourself, you have to engage with the paintings much in the same way that you would do in a museum, hoax or no hoax.
“What interested me about this story is not that there is no truth,” Bar-Lev continued. “Clearly there is an answer to whether or not, to whatever degree, she was doing these paintings. But ultimately, in a very meaningful sense, we don’t live in reality—we live in competing stories. Our sense of the world comes from storytellers of one kind or another. This is a ‘Rashomon’ story. There’s this little girl, and she barely says anything herself, and it just happens that her paintings look like Rorschach inkblots. So you bring what you want to the table, and you interpret it. If you want to see a hoax, you see a hoax, and if you want to believe that geniuses exist, then you see that.
“And in my case,” he said, “my feelings about it evolved. But my point is that the film is less about Marla Olmstead, who’s obviously a real person, a real girl who did paint to some degree, but more about all the adults around her and our various versions of her, which have as much to do with where we’re coming from as anything else. You’re speculating, and you’re also projecting. There’s a great line in the film, when Tony [Anthony Brunelli, an artist, gallery owner, and for a time Marla’s dealer] says everybody’s trying to shape the story into something they want it to be instead of just letting the story be what it is. It’s a very ironic statement, because there is no letting a story be what it is—that’s not what we all do. We’re all shaping the story, and that gets to the heart of it.”
And Bar-Lev applied the implications of this post-modernist observation to his own role as a documentary filmmaker. “The quest for objectivity is sort of misplaced,” he said. “You have an opinion, you are affecting what you’re documenting, and it’s almost less truthful to pretend as though you’re not there—to pretend as though the screen you’re putting in cinemas is some window that people are peering through to reality—because it isn’t reality, it’s a film.
“But that doesn’t mean there isn’t truth and falsehood. It just means that there’s a different type of imperative for truth at play than the accounting of facts. You’re taking a year of this [story] and making it into a ninety-minute movie. You’re making decisions for the audience. So what it has to do with is a moral imperative on the part of journalists and filmmakers, to be truthful to how they experienced the thing.”
And so “My Kid Could Paint That” reflects Amir Bar-Lev’s shifting reactions to the story he was filming, inviting viewers to share the journey with him and reach their own conclusions—about Marla Olmstead, her parents and abstract art in general.