Arts Listings

Bar-Lev Turns Lens on Child Artist Controversy

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Tuesday October 16, 2007

Child prodigy or fake? Naive genius or instrument of an adult Svengali? A controversy that erupts over the growing success of a child painter, a kind of modernist primitive, becomes a welter of questions about art, perception and authorship for a local community outside New York City and for the national media, and became a problem of integrity and presentation for Berkeley-raised documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev, whose remarkable movie My Kid Could Paint That opened locally this past weekend.  

Bar-Lev, who attended Malcolm X and Willard schools and Berkeley High, and who credits his upbringing here for his “learning how to look at things with different points of view,” began a documentary a few years back with the permission, even friendship, of the Olmstead family, whose 4-year-old daughter Marla was rapidly gaining notoriety for her paintings, which seemed to viewers to combine the innocence and freedom of childhood with the fantastic forms and colors of Modernist nonobjective abstraction. 

But praise—and skyrocketing prices, up to $25,000 each (over $300,000 total)—for Marla’s paintings got derailed after five months of increasingly international exposure by a 60 Minutes segment (shown in part in Bar-Lev’s film, as the Olmstead family watches with increasing disbelief), in which Charlie Rose elicited comments from a child psychologist, suggesting Marla’s work was probably painted, or at least guided, by her father, himself a Sunday painter and night manager for a Frito-Lay plant. 

The reaction was just as swift as the foregoing recognition, the criticism as brutal as the praise had been fervent. “The juvenile Jackson Pollock may actually be a full-fledged Willem De Frauding,” sniped the New York Post, and vitreolic hate e-mail poured in to the parents and local gallery owner and photorealist painter who launched Marla’s Icarus-like career. 

At this tipping point, the Olmsteads turned to Bar-Lev, whose visage is glimpsed earlier in the documentary, as greeted by the attractive suburban couple and as he plays with Marla and her baby brother Zane (and impish Marla’s more interested in playing than in talking about art or what she does when painting)—with hopes the documentarist will be able to vindicate Marla’s sole authorship with his film.  

And Bar-Lev, with questions of his own and increasingly mixed loyalties, found himself striving to preserve what he regards as the true documentary nature of his film, a sense of purpose which begins to alienate his subjects, intent on their own dilemma, this lands him in the midst of a crossfire between viewers and critics with different concerns, some condemning Bar-Lev for not taking sides, or not showing the reality of bigger issues they feel explain the ongoing conundrum of authorship and the propriety of media attention to, and investigation of, a previously obscure family, especially its children.  

A recent screening of My Kid Could Paint That in San Francisco showed the fascinating tensions which surfaced in the film. Bar-Lev fielded questions with wit and sensitivity, expressing appreciation for the questioners’ concerns, but firmly stating that his film was not about answers as to who painted certain paintings or who’s to blame for this distasteful controversy.  

He said it is a reflection on how these events and the issues they raised are viewed by our society and its phalanx of media, a plethora of perspectives, some criss-crossing or clashing, some never intersecting at all.  

“Scott Fitzgerald once said that the measure of intelligence is the capability to keep two opposing ideas in mind at the same time,” said Bar-Lev, “And when I quoted that for Good Morning America, I was asked, ‘Isn’t that the measure of insanity?’ Ultimately, the film is trying to see the gray area between evil-doers and heroes. There’s a distinction between a documentary filmmaker and an investigative reporter—and a cop. The investigative reporter and a policeman have the obligation, in different ways, to find out what the facts are. My film is, in part, about ethical choices. In order to resolve some of the issues it brings up, I would’ve had to cross a line—as when I film the Olmsteads on their couch while expressing some of my own doubts and they emphasize (as they continue to do) that Marla received no assistance of any kind in painting, and had never said she was a genius.  

I’d love to get an answer to all that, too, but should I have given the Olmsteads a polygraph? or taken the kid off to the side to ask whether her dad really helped her? I was more interested in preserving humanity. People asked questions right from the start, and when they were assured Marla was solely responsible, they said, ‘My god, she’s a genius!’ So the blame can’t fall just on the parents or the gallery owner. It’s not either that she’s a genius or her parents are criminals.” 

My Kid Could Paint That falls somewhere in between other unusual “essay” films, like Orson Welles’ F for Fake (which also went through major changes in the midst of its making and in postproduction, due to events which revealed much ambiguity in its subjects and threw its original purposes into doubt)--and, say, Albert Brooks’ faux-documentary, Real Life, which wryly casts doubt on the role of the documentarist, in llight of the famous episode of a PBS “reality” doc not only invading a family’s home (with permission), but contributing to its eventual break-up.  

But Bar-Lev keeps his perspective open, all the way to the vanishing points, and eschews easy comment and inference, while capturing telling remarks and expressing self-criticism. The events and various personalitiesare fascinating, and audience members find themselves taking both with varying judgments and speculations as to their veracity and ethical value.  

In the midst of it all, the children continue to play and grow up. Bar-Lev casts his net wide, yet always comes back to the question: How do we choose to tell our stories—and how do we choose to react to the stories of others? 


Contributed photo  

Marla Olmstead, 4, works on a painting that may or may not be entirely her creation in Amir Bar-Lev’s documentary My Kid Could Paint That, now in theaters.