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October 4, 2007 7:15 AM
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"My Kid Could Paint That" Director Amir Bar-Lev

A scene from Amir Bar-Lev's "My Kid Could Paint That." Photo courtesy Sony Pictures Classics.

EDITORS NOTE: This interview was originally published during the 2007 Sundance Film Festival where the film premiered.

Filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev has already directed numerous award-winning narrative and documentary films, including the feature length documentary "Fighter", which won six international awards. This year, Bar-Lev brings "My Kid Could Paint That" to Park City. The documentary questions whether four-year-old Marla Olmstead, who's sold more than $300,000 worth of paintings, is really a child prodigy. At first, "her work captured the imagination of the world," according to the Sundance Film Festival, however, the media began to question the authenticity of Marla's work. The film "scrutinizes society's obsession with child prodigies, explores the complex debate over what makes something art, questions the media's creation and subsequent destruction of heroes, and even examines the ethics of documentary storytelling." "My Kid Could Paint That" debuted in Sundance's Documentary Competition category.

Please introduce yourself. Where were you born? What do you do for a living?

I'm 34 years old, originally from Berkeley, California. My day job is producing television for the likes of Sundance Channel, SpikeTV, The Weather Channel, and VH1. No offense to any of the great people I've worked for or with in TV, but sometimes that type of work can be soul crushing. One particularly soul crushing project, I was so disgusted with my self that I resolved to read the paper beginning to end, every day, until I found a new documentary subject that would get me back into filmmaking. After a month or so of this I read about Marla Olmstead - a four year old who was selling paintings for thousands of dollars each. Amazingly, I was able to reach her parents on the phone as soon as I finished reading the article.

Please discuss "My Kid Could Paint That". What was your approach to making the project?

For the first five months of production, "My Kid Could Paint That" was a film about the meaning of modern art, and what international stardom and hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of painting sales was going to do to this 4 year old and her family. Her parents were not the type of folks one normally associates with child stars. They were ambivalent about their daughter becoming a celebrity, and I figured my film would document their attempts to manage these changes the family was going through.

I had no way of knowing that, 5 months into production, I would be faced with the possibility that the whole thing was a hoax - that, possibly, Marla's father was himself doing the paintings. This development turned the project upside down, and I tried to widen the film's scope to aim some of the same scrutiny I was analyzing paintings with to my own medium, documentary film.

How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?

Financing came through a pre-sale to BBC / Storyville that my EP, John Battsek of Passion Pictures, put together. BBC has been great to work with and very supportive of the project.

"My Kid Could Paint That" Director Amir Bar-Lev. Photo courtesy of the Sundance Institute.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced making the movie?

I quickly learned it was pretty absurd trying to turn a 4 year old into a documentary subject. I had initially expected that if I spent enough time with Marla, I would, at some point, be able to document her genius. The reality was that once I got past Marla's shyness, she was interested in playing with me, not with talking about art. Since, at the beginning, I didn't envision being part of the film, this made gathering even the most basic b-roll challenging. I would kind of try and hide behind the cameraman and hope that, for a few seconds, the kids would forget about me and allow me to shoot the kind of idealized, "kids lost in their own world of reverie" footage I thought the film needed. Countless shots were "ruined" in a hilarious way when the kids would "break the fourth wall" to ask me play with them or intervene in a dispute.

Talk about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance, where were you, and how did you react?

A funny story happened a few weeks before we got in, when we sent an email to the programmers at Sundance to tell them we had vastly improved the film since sending them an early rough cut. The response was a rather concerned inquiry, the gist of which was - "we liked what we saw, what did you change??" Um.... we color corrected the hell out of it! Chyrons: new font. World of difference. You're gonna love it!

(Thankfully Sundance bought it. In reality it's a totally different film, we did some test screenings and found out that people weren't really responding to the whole "child artist" thing - the film we're showing in Park City is kind of an action / thriller about a beautiful art thief who travels through time to seduce Vincent Van Gogh. You're gonna love it!)

What is your definition of "independent film"?

I think that what separates me from a big budget studio director is: I trust my audience's imagination.

What are some of your favorite films, and why? What is your top ten list for 2006?

"Unaccompanied Minors," "The Santa Clause 3," "The Nativity Story," wait - indieWIRE? Oh! "My Country, My Country," "51 Birch Street," and "Old Joy."


Get the latest coverage of Park City '07 in indieWIRE's special section here at indieWIRE.com

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4 Comments

  • klnappier | May 12, 2008 6:25 AMReply

    Late to the game, I just saw this doc last night with my husband. The doc itself was very compelling, but more than that, I wish I could convey to Amir Bar-Lev how my husband and I admired the ethical courage he displayed in the final moments of the movie, when he spoke with the Olmsteads face to face about his doubts. That was clearly a painful moment for him as well as the Olmsteads, yet he stood up to the task. He could have gone the "60 Minutes" route and been long gone from their livingroom by the time they viewed his documentary. He chose the nobler route and both my husband and I admire him for it. Mr. Bar-Lev, for all the flack you may have taken for your choices regarding the documentary, please know that at least two viewers are glad you made those very same choices.

  • videoden | October 8, 2007 4:43 AMReply

    I am a resident of Vestal, New York which is a suburb of Binghamton, New York where Marla was born and raised. I have seen the film, I have seen the paintings (I do NOT own any). I attended and was a very active audience participant in the after film Q & A by director, Amir Bar-Lev and many of the cast including Anthony Brunelli and Binghamton Press writer, Elizabeth Cohen, Friday evening, October 5th, at Anthony Brunelli's art gallery in downtown Binghamton.

    Please, see the film. Whether you like Marla's (or her Dad's) paintings does not matter. The film is about so much more than that. I do not personally know the Olmsteads, but from the evidence that I have witnessed and the information I have received from speaking with those associated with the story, Laura and Mark are wonderful, loving and caring parents.

    All that said, I have come to a personal conclusion that Mark assisted Marla with her art. To what degree and if he actually, himself, touched brush to canvas, I do not know, but am willing to accept the Olmstead's word of HONOR because I believe these to BE honorable people. The only mistake, in my opinon, Mark made, was to deny ANY DEGREE of assistance when asked direct questions by many people. I believe he found himself in a hole that kept getting bigger and the events surrounding Marla three years ago kept spiralling out of control. What started out as a fluke sale of a painting for $250 to a local coffee shop snowballed into a couple dozen sales of up to $30,000 each and a WAITING LIST of 70+ confirmed additional purchases. In Anthony Brunelli's opinion, at the rate the market was evolving, Marla's "original" individual works would soon reach levels of $100,000 or more. Take a moment and think about those numbers and remember where you live.

    Binghamton, New York and those communities who are regionally located in what is know as the TWIN TIERS of the Southern Tier of NY and the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, are an economic armpit for industry. Famous names like IBM and ENDICOTT JOHNSON, which were both FOUNDED here have either closed down or moved out of town. Many other businesses whose names you probably would not recognize have also closed shop over the last two decades. Mark Olmstead works the night shift at the local FRITO-LAY Potato Chip packaging plant. Here, out of a clear blue sky drops an opportunity to give freedom from strife and a guarantee of comfort for his wife, his children and his children's children. Do any one of you honestly, sincerely believe you would not be "ethically challenged" to some degree with these stakes on the line? I believe myself to be a very honest person, but I have also had my share of loss and grief. Through the 1980s and 1990s I was forced to endure FIVE corporate takeovers or mergers among three separate industries. Two of these proved to be positives for me, three did not, and all created chaos for my family. For the last seven years I have worked for myself. Some years are better than others. I am not and will never presume that I will ever be wealthy, but I do feel myself a success because I survive. Mark Olmstead had a real chance for something much more than merely surviving.

    In my opinion, Mark's mistake was "over reaching". If at the beginning when asked if he "helped" in Marla's work, Mark should have proudly declared that he would make an occasional verbal suggestion or demonstrate a brush technique. Maybe the value of the work would not have reached stratospheric heights, but I believe it would still sell because much of it is very, very good. The Olmsteads seem very good people and parents, and Marla a very talented artist, and I sincerely wish them all the best good luck they can find. Thank you.

  • videoden | October 8, 2007 4:42 AMReply

    I am a resident of Vestal, New York which is a suburb of Binghamton, New York where Marla was born and raised. I have seen the film, I have seen the paintings (I do NOT own any). I attended and was a very active audience participant in the after film Q & A by director, Amir Bar-Lev and many of the cast including Anthony Brunelli and Binghamton Press writer, Elizabeth Cohen, Friday evening, October 5th, at Anthony Brunelli's art gallery in downtown Binghamton.

    Please, see the film. Whether you like Marla's (or her Dad's) paintings does not matter. The film is about so much more than that. I do not personally know the Olmsteads, but from the evidence that I have witnessed and the information I have received from speaking with those associated with the story, Laura and Mark are wonderful, loving and caring parents.

    All that said, I have come to a personal conclusion that Mark assisted Marla with her art. To what degree and if he actually, himself, touched brush to canvas, I do not know, but am willing to accept the Olmstead's word of HONOR because I believe these to BE honorable people. The only mistake, in my opinon, Mark made, was to deny ANY DEGREE of assistance when asked direct questions by many people. I believe he found himself in a hole that kept getting bigger and the events surrounding Marla three years ago kept spiralling out of control. What started out as a fluke sale of a painting for $250 to a local coffee shop snowballed into a couple dozen sales of up to $30,000 each and a WAITING LIST of 70+ confirmed additional purchases. In Anthony Brunelli's opinion, at the rate the market was evolving, Marla's "original" individual works would soon reach levels of $100,000 or more. Take a moment and think about those numbers and remember where you live.

    Binghamton, New York and those communities who are regionally located in what is know as the TWIN TIERS of the Southern Tier of NY and the Northern Tier of Pennsylvania, are an economic armpit for industry. Famous names like IBM and ENDICOTT JOHNSON, which were both FOUNDED here have either closed down or moved out of town. Many other businesses whose names you probably would not recognize have also closed shop over the last two decades. Mark Olmstead works the night shift at the local FRITO-LAY Potato Chip packaging plant. Here, out of a clear blue sky drops an opportunity to give freedom from strife and a guarantee of comfort for his wife, his children and his children's children. Do any one of you honestly, sincerely believe you would not be "ethically challenged" to some degree with these stakes on the line? I believe myself to be a very honest person, but I have also had my share of loss and grief. Through the 1980s and 1990s I was forced to endure FIVE corporate takeovers or mergers among three separate industries. Two of these proved to be positives for me, three did not, and all created chaos for my family. For the last seven years I have worked for myself. Some years are better than others. I am not and will never presume that I will ever be wealthy, but I do feel myself a success because I survive. Mark Olmstead had a real chance for something much more than merely surviving.

    In my opinion, Mark's mistake was "over reaching". If at the beginning when asked if he "helped" in Marla's work, Mark should have proudly declared that he would make an occasional verbal suggestion or demonstrate a brush technique. Maybe the value of the work would not have reached stratospheric heights, but I believe it would still sell because much of it is very, very good. The Olmsteads seem very good people and parents, and Marla a very talented artist, and I sincerely wish them all the best good luck they can find. Thank you.

  • jewishfilm | January 23, 2007 4:35 AMReply

    I not only enjoyed the film and the way the director captured the press, the kids, the parents, the critics, and the art gallery dealer, but the way the film shows the problems of making a documentary, and halfway into it, realizing that the wtory you set out to film is not the story you will end up with. Larry (JewishFilm.com)