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THE UNSEEN HAND
Amir Bar-Lev got more than he bargained for when he followed child painter Marla Olmstead and her family for a year in the riveting documentary My Kid Could Paint That.

BY JASON GUERRASIO

OCEAN BY MARLA OLMSTEAD. PHOTO BY: MARK AND LAURA OLMSTEAD/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

Amir Bar-Lev never intended on hurting anyone. It was just an innocent fascination with abstract art that got him interested in making a documentary on Marla Olmstead, a four-year-old painter whose work has sold for thousands of dollars.

To make his film, Bar-Lev did what any filmmaker making a movie about a child would do — get close to the parents, in this case Laura, a dental assistant, and Mark, a Frito-Lay factory worker. And while becoming friends with Laura and Mark, he filmed the day-to-day life of their Binghamton, New York family — Marla and younger brother Zane — as they were thrust into the spotlight of the art world, attending gallery openings and appearing on The Today Show and Inside Edition. But Bar-Lev had only one problem — he didn‘t actually have footage of Marla painting. Whenever he tried to capture her artistic process she would just play around with the paint as if it was kindergarten art time.

Then on February 23, 2005, six months into his filming, the bombshell: A 60 Minutes report about Marla made the charge that she was not a prodigy. It questioned whether or not she did the paintings on her own, implying that her father helped her. Suddenly, Bar-Lev becomes the parents‘ last hope to clear their names, and My Kid Could Paint That shifts from a film on the craziness of modern painting to an investigative report on possible art fraud.

Regardless of whether you walk away from Bar-Lev‘s film thinking Marla does the paintings on her own or not, what My Kid Could Paint That definitely demonstrates is that our culture is obsessed with putting people on a pedestal and then gleefully knocking them off at the moment their talents are in question. And, for filmmakers, Bar-Lev‘s film is a master class in the difficult decisions documentary makers face as they get close to the personal lives of their subjects. Sony Pictures Classics opens the film October 5.

MARIA AND LAURA OLMSTEAD. PHOTO BY: MARK AND LAURA OLMSTEAD/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

When did you first hear about Marla? I read about Marla in a New York Times story [in 2004]. To me, it was just an interesting story. Number one, her popularity made me think about the question of “What is art? How does one judge art? How does one value art? Is it all a big con or is there something to modern art?” I also thought it would be interesting to follow this family, which was not the type of family one would normally associate with child celebrities.

Or just the art world in general. You‘re exactly right. Here was this family that literally overnight had been pulled into international art stardom. I wanted to see where things went with them. Over the course of the next half year or so I became real friendly with the family. It proved very challenging from the get-go to turn this four-year-old into a subject of a documentary for the very obvious reasons that all she really wanted to do was play. She didn‘t want to be interviewed about the meaning of representation [laughs]. So by the time this surprise came six months in — that possibly it was all a big hoax — I was closer to the family than most documentary filmmakers get with their subjects.

How did you initially approach the parents about making a film about their daughter? I approached them right before this big gallery opening. I said to them, “Look, I‘ll shoot all weekend because this is a very important scene and at the end of the weekend we can discuss it. If you don‘t want to do [the doc] I‘ll just give you the tapes and we‘ll go our separate ways.” So when Sunday afternoon rolled around I sat down with them and they said, “We‘ve been discussing it and asking ourselves why we should do this. What‘s in it for us?” I mistakenly thought they were talking about financial compensation, and they said, “No, we‘re not talking about money, we‘re just wondering — you seem like a nice guy, but why would we let some stranger in our house to play with our kids?” It stumped me, and then I answered, “Well, the only thing I can say is that I think that the film might meet a deeper truth than some [of the work] of these other news crews that are coming in and out of your life. Maybe my film will reach more people; maybe my film will be something you will be happy to have 20 years from now because it will show what this year was like in your lives.” So, fast-forward to six months later when all of a sudden I‘m confronted with the possibility that they‘ve been lying. My first thought, and not for the last time did I have this thought, was why would they have invited me into their lives if they had something to hide? So I believed when I first saw 60 Minutes that this was impossible.

Have you made up your mind on whether Marla gets help with her paintings or not? I‘m painfully aware of how important the subject of their innocence or guilt is [to Mark and Laura], but I hope that‘s not all people think the film is about. It‘s not that I‘m saying it doesn‘t matter whether she had help with the paintings or not, because I think it does. But ultimately what I wanted to make the film about was what happens when you let a documentary director into your life — the issues around representing people on celluloid. What happens on a human level. I definitely don‘t want the film to be construed as a knock against documentary filmmaking. On the contrary, I‘m just trying to talk a little about the process of representation. Whether you are painting someone, documenting them or writing a novel about them, there‘s always this disparity between how you see people and how they see themselves, and I just wanted to point to that.

But this family, however, was looking for my film to exonerate them, and I was unable to find proof in either direction. I was not able to prove that they were guilty nor was I able to prove that Marla does all of those paintings by herself, so then I was confronted with the responsibility that every documentary filmmaker has, which is to take that one year of time and turn it into 90 minutes of film. And whichever 90 minutes I chose was going to have a major impact on this family. In the absence of “proof” there would just be the way that I portrayed them.

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT. PHOTO BY: MARK AND LAURA OLMSTEAD/SONY PICTURES CLASSICS

What went through your head when you realized you had to make a different movie than you initially wanted? After the initial shock my first thought was, wow, this is really interesting for my film. And then the next thought was, boy, I feel parasitic because this terrible thing has just happened to my subjects and, as they rightfully say at the end of the movie, “it‘s documentary gold.” That‘s a weird feeling, morally, so I decided to try and draw attention to that element of the relationship between filmmakers and their subjects; how complicated it is to be friends with someone and at the same time want to tell an interesting story. I don‘t think I did anything different than what every filmmaker does, which is to ride this bucking bronco of reality where you are constantly trying to figure out how you‘re going to tell the story and adapt to reality. There is a moment in the film where the gallery owner, Tony Brunelli, says that everybody is trying to shape the story into something they want it to be instead of letting the story be what it is, and I kept that line in there not because I agree with it but because I disagree with it. There is no story without a storyteller, and it‘s not one person shaping the story, every single person is.

You can see as the film goes on that the notoriety Tony and Mark get goes to their heads a little. I would see this film as a cautionary tale to anybody who would decide to let other people tell their story for them. That‘s what you do when you‘re a celebrity. Whether it‘s the news or your publicist or a documentary crew, you‘re handing over the story of your life to someone else and they‘re going to draw their own conclusions. It may work in your favor and it may not, but you lose control as soon as you let other people start telling your story. In one way that‘s what the film is about. It‘s about this family who probably went into it with good intentions but couldn‘t control their lives once they became an international story.

Some would argue that as a documentary filmmaker it‘s your responsibility to tell all sides of the story and not give your own opinion. I‘m not sure I agree with that. I don‘t think it‘s about not putting in your opinion, I think it‘s about scrutinizing your own opinion and your own perspective to such a degree that you stand behind it. It‘s like the film is neither true nor false; it‘s just how I saw things. It‘s not reality — it‘s a construction. I don‘t think that a filmmaker should exclude his opinions. You can go one of two ways: You could choose to try and make a film as objective as possible or you could let the audience in on the fact that this isn‘t reality, this is a fallible person‘s opinion. You see in the film how much I struggle with the conclusions I‘m beginning to draw and their potential impact on my subject, but I stand by the characterization. It‘s an interesting thing to try and define objectivity. I mean, it‘s important not to mess with the facts, that‘s for sure. It becomes complicated because you‘re omitting things [when you make a documentary]. It‘s not about objectivity, it‘s about evaluating your own subjectivity, and I find that really interesting. Documentary filmmaking is kind of like therapy in a way. You have to look at your own motives. At every juncture in any film you‘re reducing weeks of time down to seconds, so it becomes less about objectivity and more about whether you are making a sensational story or trying to get to the heart of the matter of how you really think things went down.

How often would you go upstate to shoot the family? With this particular film you end up sort of partnering with your subjects in a way. They become your line producers. They‘re calling you and telling you when something interesting is happening. You begin to ask yourself, is this a collaboration or is it journalism? A case in point was that as we began to struggle to get the footage that would prove that Marla was single-handedly doing the paintings, the family said the reason we were having trouble getting that footage was that Marla had become too familiar with me and my camera man and would be distracted every time we came up. So what we came up with was that I wouldn‘t show up; I would get a new camera man, one who they hadn‘t even been introduced to them to do the work. It became this absurd type of shooting where we would start out of New York City at six in the morning, arrive at nine because she paints in the morning at nine-thirty, and we would stake out their house. We would be outside drinking coffee just waiting for the phone call, and then the phone call would come, “She‘s painting, send Nelson in!” So Nelson would come in and just imagine he‘s not being introduced, he‘s not even being acknowledged; she‘s painting and suddenly this stranger comes in with this camera. It was weird but it was also sad because this accusation against them had caused them to lose sight to a certain degree of some of their initial protectiveness of their kids. We had reached a 180-degree difference from where we started. At the beginning they had said, “We‘re only going to let you into the house if you‘re friendly with our kids” and now it was the complete opposite — I was too friendly with the kids.

MY KID COULD PAINT THAT DIRECTOR AMIR-BAR LEV.

What would you do when you weren‘t shooting? Honestly, I became an insomniac. It was a really tough situation to find myself in because I just felt there was a lot at stake. Whatever happened or didn‘t happen, certainly this little four-year-old is innocent and I knew the film would live with her, potentially even shape her recollections. So here I‘m putting this documentary into the world that calls into question her parents‘ honesty. Seriously, there were times I thought that maybe I‘ll just abandon this project.

There are people who watch the film and get frustrated that I don‘t act like a better inquisitor, that I didn‘t become the type of person who would be able to get to the bottom of this mystery. Some people ask, “Why don‘t you take Marla off to the side and ask her whether her Dad was helping her?” Or, there‘s one scene where the family says, “Give us a polygraph.” I don‘t want to be the type of person who gives people polygraphs. That‘s just not who I am. The nature of this particular mystery was such that to really get to the bottom of it you would have to have had to do something like that, and it just felt cheap to me. Take the paintings to fraud experts! I just didn‘t want to do that.

So you never asked Marla if her Dad helped her? I didn‘t ask Marla for two reasons. One, in some ways I guess I was afraid of the answer and two, I feel that it‘s in the film. I‘m not asking, but she does say stuff. The scene where she says, “Zane painted the green one.” I mean Zane didn‘t paint the green one, you know what I mean? But I know it is frustrating for some people and maybe I should have [asked her]. It‘s not a perfect film because it was very muddy waters to tread in ethically.

Looking back on it, do you think you got too close to your subjects? [pause] Um, I don‘t think so.

Would you ever get this close to a subject again? Sure. I don‘t think there‘s any way of getting around these issues. I mean, if you get less close to your subjects you‘re not going to get the material you need to get. I don‘t think I would have done things differently, I just think that documentary filmmaking is complicated and everybody needs to go into it understanding what‘s involved — which is that there are going to be these two somewhat incommensurate elements to your relationship with people. One is your striving for journalistic integrity and the other is your feelings of affection for them. There‘s no getting around that.

A good amount of people see the film and conclude that there‘s been no hoax whatsoever, which has been very gratifying for me because I feel the confusion that‘s been in my brain has been spilled into the seats of the cinema. The other thing is we premiered at Sundance and we brought six of Marla‘s paintings. We borrowed them from collectors just for display and somebody offered $35,000 for Ocean, which is more than anybody‘s ever offered for her work. We‘ll see what happens moving forward when the film comes out. I think that the paintings are only going to rise in value.

Has everyone in the film seen it? Nearly everyone‘s seen it. It‘s my hope that the Olmsteads will warm up to the film when they realize how many people come away from it feeling the way about them that they always wanted a film to make people feel about them.

So they didn‘t see it at Sundance? They‘ve seen it in the privacy of their own home but they haven‘t been at the festival screenings. They weren‘t at Sundance.

Have you talked to them since they‘ve seen it? Yeah. I talked to them. [pause] I‘m hoping that our relationship improves by the time this comes out. And that‘s all I want to say about that.

Does Sony want them to do press for the film? I think that Sony and I both feel the same way, which is, we don‘t want the film to be the last word on the Olmsteads. I‘m hoping that they are interested in participating in publicity in some way or contributing to the DVD. [EDITOR‘S NOTE: At press time, the publicist for the Olmsteads says the family is doing limited press and that there is no offical word yet on their involvment in the DVD]. Even if our perspectives aren‘t exactly alike we need for both perspectives to be out in the world.

Would you ever go back and re-examine this, say, when Marla is a teenager? Well, I‘m hoping to do some of that with the DVD. I really hope to do follow-ups with everybody. I tell you what, though — somebody is going to do [a follow-up years later]. It‘s probably not going to be me.

Do you feel any guilt over having made the film? [pause] The answer is no but I feel sad that I no longer hang out with Marla and Zane. I thought those kids were pretty amazing and I am concerned about the impact the film might have on them. But when push comes to shove I think the film is fair so I don‘t feel guilty.



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