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Film: Child prodigy documentary spotlights director’s ethical struggle

by Naomi Pfefferman

October 4, 2007 | 8:00 pm

Amir Bar-Lev

Amir Bar-Lev

Amir Bar-Lev began his documentary, "My Kid Could Paint That," after he tired of creating television programs about pop culture for networks such as VH-1. He had previously won six international awards for his debut feature-length film, "Fighter," a portrait of two Holocaust survivors, which Newsweek and other major publications named one of 2001's top documentaries. He vowed to read the entire New York Times daily until he discovered a compelling subject for another documentary feature.

He found it in a 2004 article on Marla Olmstead, a 4-year-old from Binghamton, N.Y., whose abstract paintings were selling for thousands of dollars. The child had first picked up a brush when she was in diapers; her father, an amateur painter, had let her daub canvases while sitting atop the dining room table. Newspapers around the world had picked up the story, labeling the toddler a "pint-sized Pollack."

Within hours of reading The Times' profile, Bar-Lev obtained the Olmsteads' telephone number and they agreed to appear on camera. He said he initially intended his movie to explore society's obsession with child prodigies, how the media creates celebrities and "how we choose to decide what is art and what is great art." (New York Times critic Michael Kimmelman comments on this in the film.)

Bar-Lev said he did not doubt that Marla had created the vivid paintings -- even after "60 Minutes II" aired a piece suggesting that her father may have helped created the work. "I felt I was onto what I used to call a 'David and Goliath story,'" the 35-year-old filmmaker said over coffee at the Four Seasons Hotel. The Olmsteads appeared sincere. "[But] I started having my own questions, as I repeatedly failed to get footage of Marla painting in a way that I felt would debunk the '60 Minutes' allegations," he said.

As Bar-Lev's doubts grew, his film gradually became a study of reportage and ethics in journalism, including himself under the spotlight. On camera, he admits he wasn't being "100 percent honest" about airing his growing doubts with the Olmsteads, who were expecting the movie to exonerate them. When he finally feels strongly enough about his misgivings to voice them, Marla's mother sadly but sarcastically remarks that he has hit "documentary gold" -- and promptly walks off camera. It was the last time Bar-Lev was allowed to interview the Olmsteads, who in a statement said they were "heartbroken by some of the choices he made in his portrayal of our family."

Bar-Lev said, "I had to choose between my affection for the Olmsteads and telling what I perceived as the truth.... I don't feel flip about what happened between me and them. It's quite possibly the most painful interpersonal conflict I've ever had in my life."

He said he included Laura Olmstead's sarcastic remark in the film in order "to be self-critical and to allow her to point out the complicated dynamic that a filmmaker has with his documentary subjects."

Reviewers have lauded the movie as fair and intriguing.

The New York Times called it "one of the most honest, enjoyable tutorials on media ethics out there."

"The popular human interest story of a child prodigy becomes an engrossing meditation on truth, media exploitation and the value of art," Variety said.

Bar-Lev's first documentary, "Fighter," also involved difficult choices for the filmmaker. It spotlights the emotional fireworks that ensued when two combative friends, the survivors Jan Wiener and Arnost Lustig, retraced Wiener's journey through war-torn Europe.

Bar-Lev said he was drawn to the titular fighter, Wiener, in part, because the survivor reminded him of his own grandfather, a Haganah veteran. He said he was dismayed when Wiener and Lustig became so enraged with each other on the trip that their friendship seemed at stake; production halted for three days as Bar-Lev and his partners waited to see if the men could mend fences.

"Fighter" and "Kid" have something in common, according to the director. "Both films are about the way in which stories can take on a life of their own," he said. "In 'Fighter,' Jan's story gets scrutinized by Arnost, who begins to ask him ... 'Is it possible you are mythologizing the events [of your past] and seeing them with a kind of heroic patina?'" And 'Kid' is about a story that got out of the hands of the [protagonists] and into the hands of the media -- and became this juggernaut that rolled out of control."

"My Kid Could Paint That" opens Oct. 5 in Los Angeles. For information about "Fighter," visit www.fighterfilm.com.
The 'Kid' trailer
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