A few years back, Big Apple–based documentary filmmaker Amir Bar-Lev discovered a phenomenon too interesting to ignore: Marla Olm stead, an otherwise ordinary four-year-old in upstate New York, was turning out abstract oil paintings of startling sophistication. She was making serious news, and selling very well, as a result.
When the girl's well-spoken parents, affable Mark and the more cautious Laura, agreed to have a movie made in their home–while getting increased national attention–Bar-Lev thought it would be a good opportunity to make some observations about the place of art in consumer culture. The resulting film, My Kid Could Paint That, opens Friday (October 19).
"On one level, it's about this strange phenomenon," Bar-Lev says on the line from Los Angeles, a destination he has been visiting more often since being nominated for the top documentary prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival. "But the real subject is our relationship with art as an expression of the divine."
Bar-Lev thought the child-prodigy angle was one that has long carried extra meaning, even if much of it borders on the inexplicable.
"I viewed it as a collaboration with the Olmsteads, and I don't think any of us saw how complicated it would get."
He's referring to the controversy that mushroomed when experts started considering whether or not Marla's work–much of it extremely assured and not at all resembling her dad's figurative weekend painting–might have been, shall we say, helped along by other hands.
"The conversation went in a different direction," recalls the director, previously best known for Fighter, about two highly contrasting Holocaust survivors. "It became more about the nature of celebrity and about morality. It was tough, because the questions it raised involved choosing between opposite directions."
The film is scrupulously fair-minded, and Bar-Lev allows viewers to judge for themselves based on available evidence, helped along by the clever use of archival footage, split-screen devices, and insightful comments from New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman and others.
"It's not so much that I don't want to come down on one side or another, but I just couldn't be absolutely sure in the end," Bar-Lev explains. "I'm against conjecture in general and was never interested in engaging in character assassination. This girl is a blank canvas, if you can forgive the image, onto which people can project their own ideas about art and creative expression."
Bar-Lev studied mysticism and comparative religions at Brown University, and he says this had an effect on his choice of subject matter.
"We all have this desire to see the transcendent, and a story like this is less about the art itself–which is such a subjective thing–than it is about the individual channelling these higher powers. At the same time, when I went into this I really challenged myself to not chortle cynically, because I'm not easily convinced by mystical gifts and unexplained talents."
Not surprisingly, the Olmsteads aren't thrilled with My Kid, and they declined to attend Sundance with the director.
"They sent a message instead, saying they were heartbroken with some of the choices I made. But isn't that the essence of art, whether creating or receiving it? You have to make choices every step of the way."