Interview With Amir Bar-Lev (Director of "My Kid Could Paint")
Dallas, Texas, September 18, 2007
Outlook: I felt for you here; I thought you stepped into a situation fraught with peril.
ABL: (chuckles) Yeah. There was no way to win, necessarily. Yeah, thanks.
Outlook: So it was almost like a "Who Do You Trust?" thing, like that old Johnny Carson show.
ABL: What makes it a compelling mystery is that almost no way you add it up makes total sense, either if you assume she's a prodigy or the whole thing is a scam. What's been interesting to me is that in the screenings, and the Q and A after wards, the audience has been divided about it, which makes for an interesting Q and A…I was attracted to this story because of the lack of standards in Modern Art. Some 4-year-old is a prodigy? According to who (m)? But just because there are no objective standards doesn't mean you can't develop your own opinion. So you have to engage in these paintings either way, which gives people an opportunity.
Outlook: Can I make an analogy about biblical interpretation? You look at two pieces of writing, supposedly by the same author, and try to judge if they could possibly have been written by the same person. One example: The Gospel of John and the Revelation of John. So you're faced with a decision about authorship, in the same way you are about these paintings.
ABL: My background is not in art, but in religious studies.
Outlook: No kidding?!
ABL: Yes, my background is Jewish. So there's the Torah, and the Midrash, the commentary along the margins of the Torah. So this is a fascinating analogy to me. We don't live in reality, but in competing stories. This little girl has these paintings, and then you bring what you want to the story, whether you want to believe this is a hoax, or this is genius. The film is less about Marla Olmstead, and more about all the adults around her, and our varied versions of her, which have as much to do about where we're coming from.
Outlook: To continue the biblical analogy, there's hardly any way to get at the "original" text, without having to go through all the subsequent commentaries and editors.
Wouldn't the same be true here? It's almost impossible to get at just Marla and her painting, without going through all the adults around her.
ABL: Yeah, it's a great irony, because there's no letting the story be what it is. It's only through the filters of others, and the viewer's perception, as well. We're all shaping the story.
Outlook: One more analogy: that's precisely what Albert Schweitzer concluded when he wrote "The Quest For The Historical Jesus": that in the end, any commentator winds up fashioning Jesus in his own image, according to his own prior expectations.
ABL: Yes, and in a sense there's nothing wrong with that. That's how the mind works. To bring it back to earth, this is the world we live in. Like the characterization of Binghamton, the little hometown where the Olmstead family lives. And all these people filming it would show empty fields, or an abandoned warehouse, or something, but if you pan the camera sideways, you'd find a café, or a bookstore. So there was definitely a bias from the people reporting this story in the first place…So it makes you focus on "What is meant by truth?"
Outlook: (Refraining from making a reference to Pontius Pilate)
ABL: The quest for objectivity is misplaced. In a documentary, you can't pretend you're not there. But it doesn't mean there isn't truth and falsehood. What it means is that there's a different type of imperative for truth, other than accounting of facts. You're making decisions for your audience on what you choose to show. There's a moral imperative for journalists to be truthful about how they experienced things.
Outlook: (Refraining from chasing the concept of moral imperative)
ABL: They (the parents) told me that Marla doesn't paint when your film crew is around, because she looks forward to interacting with you when you come, and she gets distracted. So then we decided to get a new cameraman who was actually given instructions to not befriend the kids. But we could never capture her actually doing the kind of work that the parents said she did when we weren't there. Originally, I thought I had a David and Goliath story, especially after that "60 Minutes" segment, but I got ahead of myself. In the end, you wind up somewhere in the middle, that she probably did some work, and there was also probably some kind of collaboration with her Dad. Even Mozart, that other child prodigy, probably had some help from his Dad in his early compositions. So it becomes about the value of the story.
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Terrell, Texas