Documentaries lately have become almost as much about the filmmaker as they are about the subject. Although they are supposed to be objective and without comment, often they can’t help but be yet another way to tell a one-sided story. They are slanted by the point of view of their author. Struggling with this idea is Amir Bar-Lev who, through the course of his film, My Kid Could Paint That must confront his subjects about what he believes is the truth. The film, then, becomes about uncovering a mystery that ultimately has no definitive answer.
Bar-Lev set out to make a documentary that countered the 60 Minutes segment on Marla Olmstead, then a four-year-old painter who was selling her work for upwards of $100,000 apiece. The first half of the film is all about discovering this great genius the art world took to like flies to honey. It is all supposed to reach its climax when Charlie Rose profiled the Olmsteads on 60 Minutes. Unfortunately for them, the news program was more about exposing the girl as a fraud whose paintings were really done by her ambitious, well-meaning father.
We spend so much time with the family that we come to know them enough to feel their heartbreak when it seems like Rose and 60 Minutes took advantage of them and duped them the way only journalists can (if you’ve ever been reamed by one you know what I’m talking about). By the end of the documentary, however, the director is worried that he isn’t convinced that Marla, in fact, painted the paintings. Sadly, we aren’t convinced either.
This is what makes My Kid Could Paint That a very painful sit. As interesting a documentary as it is, bringing up the fundamental question of what is art, it is equally difficult to understand how any parent could put their child through something like that. It is, frankly, sickening to watch them corral their daughter to paint daily. It isn’t an obsession with her – she does it because it’s expected of her. She is no different from a beauty pageant contestant who must play out the role her parents cast her in.
It becomes, at a certain point, all too obvious that the poor mother had no idea the extent to which the father, who was home with the child, must have directed, and in some cases performed, the work. She sees her daughter paint and can see no difference between the painting they capture Marla creating on camera and the paintings that have been wowing art critics. There is a huge difference. One looks like it was painted by a regular child. The rest of them seem like the work of a mad genius. And therein lies the rub.
If the art is great, what does it matter who painted it? It matters because it is really only great if a child had painted it. Any mediocre adult could do what Marla’s father has done. The result of his collaborations with his daughter are vivid and beautiful, but they are fakes. It doesn’t take a genius to see that.
In the end, though, what we’re left with is a kid who now has to live up to and live down a very big lie. She is now six and is still painting. The parents now believe they have to defend themselves against the accusations and thus vindicate poor little Marla. She won’t be a child forever, and what happens when she is old enough to remember or to see that it’s so much better when Daddy helps. Otherwise, there is no magic.
My Kid Could Paint That is an unforgettable film, but perhaps for all of the wrong reasons. By the end of it, the filmmaker has no choice but to present what he sees as the truth. Otherwise, what is the point? The Olmsteads tell him that they hope his documentary undoes the damage that 60 Minutes did. But in the end, as conflicted as he is, he must tell it like he sees it. He is, after all, not in the business of creating art.