Amir Bar-Lev’s My Kid Could Paint That is ostensibly a documentary about four-year-old Marla Olmestead whose abstract paintings begin to sell for tens of thousands of dollars. As one might imagine, there are all kinds of questions raised by the film. The first and most obvious is if an untrained child can create works that can sit next to Pollock, is modern art genius a hoax or an indiscriminate blessing? Very quickly, however, the story moves away from the idea that modern art may be a hoax, and toward the notion that four-year-old Marla’s abilities may be a hoax. A 60 Minutes report on Marla raises serious doubts as to her unaided creation of these works. An expert on the show is immediately impressed by seeing a painting that Marla creates, but when she watches the hidden camera footage of her painting, she is disillusioned because “she’s just doing what any kid would do with paint.” As a result of the “expose” Marla’s paintings stop selling.
[the film takes a turn]
At this point, the film moves beyond its own aspirations to tell a story about a girl who paints, and it begins to tell the story of how stories are told and the ways we all find truth for ourselves in the events we witness. By this time, Bar-Lev has become ingrained in Marla’s family. They call him Uncle Amil and when the paint hits the fan on 60 Minutes, the parents turn to their new friend with a camera crew to act as their redemption. The only problem, he’s starting to have doubts as well. In a particularly raw and moving scene, the director switches his camera on as he’s driving home from a day of shooting and confesses that not sure how to proceed.
This documentary has become something different and I’ve been telling everybody how great it is for the film that this potential scandal has come up. But right now, driving back, I’m not feeling that way, I’m feeling sad and conflicted… I realized tonight I’m going to have to call some people liars who on the face of things are the nicest people. What’s my investment in it, so people will think I’m a great filmmaker or whatever?
[redemption, sort of]
By the end of the film, the family has done everything in their power to restore their reputation. They’ve been successful to some degree, Marla’s paintings begin to sell again, but there’s still room for doubt. There are confrontational moments where the filmmaker’s doubts are clear to the family and they feel betrayed and hurt. They question why they’ve put their daughter through all this and the filmmaker wrestles with how he will end up telling the story. My guess is that after many soul-searching nights he decided to let what he’d learned from Marla’s story inform his film’s direction. Marla’s paintings are inexorably tied to the identity of the artist. The painter is a part of meaning of the painting. And in My Kid Could Paint That, the storyteller is a part of the story, maybe in a way he didn’t realize at the outset. It made me think of Steve James's Stevie (another favorite of mine) because of its acknowledgement that the making of the film is a part of the story.
There’s an interview toward the end of the film that is one of the best documentary moments I’ve seen in years. An art expert, whose insights have been a part of the film throughout, is talking about the inherently deceptive nature of art. “I mean all art is a lie, it looks like a picture of something, but it isn’t that thing, it’s a representation of that thing.” He continues, “Your documentary is, on some level going to be a lie, it’s your construction of things.” Then he chuckles to himself realizing the power of what he’s said and knowing that saying that sentence more convincingly might make for a good moment in the film. So he says, “I can say that if you like.” The cameraman and interviewer can be heard off screen urging him, “Yes, yes. Absoultely.” So, he takes a moment, looks away from the camera, clears his throat and turns back saying, “I mean your documentary is going to be a lie, it’s a construction of things. Its how you wish to represent the truth, and how you’ve decided to tell a particular story.” The fact that the editor kept both the initial statement and the speaker’s “preparation” for the final draft of the statement indicates that these guys have a pretty sophisticated understanding of their craft. Even an interview subject describing the deceptiveness of art knows how to present a “spontaneous observation” more convincingly.
Ultimately, the film’s tone is in lockstep with the story it tells. When it becomes clear that the story of Marla’s paintings is about how they are created, they decide to make the film about how it was created. And just as the authenticity of this little girl’s paintings is open to interpretation, so too could the film be read as an exoneration or an indictment of the family. Bar-Lev has produced a documentary that feels very much like a work of modern art. He gives us an arrangement of shapes and figures and lets us decide what to make of them.