Could this kid paint that?
Is it possible a four-year-old painter can channel the talent of the mighty abstract expressionist Jackson Pollock? Or is it a hoax?
In his Sundance Film Festival documentary, "My Kid Could Paint That," director Amir Bar-Lev wants his audiences to walk away with mixed opinions.
"I’m hoping that a quarter of the people think that Marla did the paintings, and a quarter of the people think that Marla didn’t do the paintings, and that half of the people think that this is about larger issues like art and meaning and storytelling," he says.
Marla Olmstead, from Binghamton, New York, is now five-years-old and has been selling her paintings to collectors, some for thousands of dollars, since she was three. Her parents say they have put the money she has earned, totaling more than $300,000, into a college fund.
During the festival, Olmstead’s work will be on display in Park City’s The Art Is In Gallery in 333 Main Street to accompany the debut of the film about her life. Bar-Lev says it’s as important for people to see the work itself as it is to see the film.
"My Kid Could Paint That" is Bar-Lev’s second film, but his first film to be admitted to the Sundance Film Festival. His documentary, "Fighter," a film that follows two Holocaust survivors, won six international film awards, including Best Documentary at The Newport International Film Festival in 2000.
A New York Times article covering Marla’s gallery opening in her hometown inspired Bar-Lev to contact the Olmstead family about making a documentary. The article reported that the opening had attracted 2,000 people.
"Her parents say they love her paintings, but didn’t necessarily think that they would be something that other people would love until a family friend came by and said, ‘you should put these up in my café. So they did almost as a lark. And then all the paintings sold," Bar-Lev says.
Initially Bar-Lev was strictly interested in Marla’s story as it related to issues that surround the judgment of modern art and the value of modern art. "I thought it would be an interesting way to look at art and celebrity and our relationship with children," he says. "You always hear that phrase, ‘my kid could paint that,’ well here was a kid who was actually painting these paintings and people were paying $10,000 for them."
But mid-production, the story Bar-Lev set out to tell took a turn.
About six-months into filming, Bar-Lev heard that 60 Minutes II would be airing a story alleging that perhaps Marla’s reputation as a prodigy was a scam. Instead, 60 Minutes II suggested that the paintings sold to collectors for thousands of dollars were not Marla’s work at all, but the work of her father, Mark Olmstead, a Frito-Lay manufacturing plant manager.
"I was totally blind-sided by those allegations, but I couldn’t keep going forward with my film until I got to the bottom of whether or not Marla was doing these paintings," he explains.
"You can imagine at that moment, I was at a juncture all of the sudden I was faced with the possibility that they had been lying to me and that the film that I thought I was making was based on an untruth. The film I was making up until that point was based on the fact that Marla was making the painting."
After the 60 Minutes II story, the Olmstead family began refusing interviews, according to Bar-Lev, but they continued to trust the documentary makers. The Olmsteads hoped the film might clear the air.
"When public sentiment turned against Marla Olmstead, the family turned to my documentary to exonerate them," Bar-Lev explained.
But Bar-Lev says he began to recognize he had been included as a friend of the family and that his close relationship with his subject was framing the narrative of his documentary.
"The family not only welcomed me into their home, but they really allowed me to become a friend," he says. "The prospect of making a film that would be painful for them was not something I was relishing."
Instead of shying a way from his subjectivity, Bar-Lev chose to draw attention to the relationship between documentary subjects and documentary filmmakers by including footage of himself in front of the camera, in the periphery, playing with Marla.
"We’d try to take ourselves out of the equation, and get this footage of Marla and just ignoring us, and it was ridiculous," he recalls.
"We were confronted with our misconceptions about being a fly on the wall because you’re not a fly on the wall when you’re a bunch of strangers trying to prop themselves in the backyard and film a four year-old being a four-year-old," Bar-Lev observes. "If you’re trying to capture reality and trying to omit that, then you’re not really capturing reality, you’re creating an illusion."
Most of the voices in the film are from adults — those who have written about Marla, and collectors that have purchased her art. Elizabeth Cohen, the newspaper reporter who originally broke the story about Marla, will be joining him in Park City for the festival and is also in the documentary.
"Elizabeth Cohen who broke the story and is a mother of a child Marla’s age and she was ambivalent about the story from the beginning, because as a journalist it was a great story, but as a mother she thought it wasn’t going to end well for the family if she wrote the story," he said.
Bar-Lev says trying to work with a four-year-old subject is at times absurd and at times silly. Some of the collectors he interviewed said they were attracted to the idea of a child painter because they have a sense that Marla is channeling something that adults lose in maturity, he says. Bar-Lev, on the other hand, found himself relating to Marla as a kid, and not as an artist.
"It was much easier to play with her than ask her about her theories of abstract expressionism," he says.
As for whether or not the success of her artwork has affected her, Bar-Lev replies that he’s unsure of whether she’s aware of it.
"I tend to think that the idea that she’s completely oblivious to all this, serves the adults around her more than that is true," he says. "The idea that she’s totally oblivious and unaffected is something we adults tell ourselves to make us feel better about the commerce going around her."
Marla’s work itself, however, and the concept of outsider art, art created by individuals without training and at times without much deliberation, has opened his eyes.
"Basically, I went into the documentary not knowing much about abstract art and probably harboring a lot of questions about its meaningfulness and what this film forced me to do is arrive at my own conclusions about paintings and the question of whether or not Marla was actually doing them forced me to go beyond the perspective that ‘oh it all looks the same,’" Bar-Lev explains.
While he believes there is a fair amount of truth that can be uncovered in a documentary, Bar-Lev offers that it’s a truth that is not quite as tidy as a scripted film.
"I’m interested in trying to point out the fact that a documentary isn’t a window into another reality, but a story told by a person and that the story is their construction," Bar-Lev told The Park Record. "I want people to draw their own conclusions, but I also want them to be aware that the filmmaker is a fallible human being with his own limited perspective."
"My Kid Could Paint That" will premiere at The Prospector Square Theatre at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21.
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Hotel occupancy in the Park City area during Sundance is projected to drop dramatically from a typical year as organizers shift the event online.