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Interview with Amir Bar-Lev, director of My Kid Could Paint That

Amir Bar-Lev directs My Kid Could Paint That, a documentary about Marla, a four-year-old girl, who became famous for her abstract art, which created controversy because she may or may not have been authentically and independently her own creation. This is Amir Bar-Lev's second feature length documentary after Fighter, released back in 2001. I had privilege to interview him.

Sony Pictures Classics releases My Kid Could Paint That on October 5th, 2007.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What intrigued you about Marla’s story?

ABL: This story instantly intrigued me because, I think, anytime you have a four-year-old celebrity, it brings up many interesting issues about fame, the media and our relationship with children. In this particular case, people were saying that Marla is a prodigy of abstract expressionism which, to me, added this extra dimension of intrigue. When I met the Olmstead’s, I noticed that it would play out in a really cinematic fashion because, even before there was any question of authenticity, you could see that this was going to have an arc.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you manage to make this film so entertaining?

ABL: An almost surefire way to make documentaries entertaining is to do something that has already been reported in the news. News programs have such a superficial way of treating the world that, if you spend a few more hours in a place, you’re going to get material that, when inter-cut with their footage, it’s going to be entertaining and illuminating.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How do you feel about abstract art?

ABL: I’m less skeptical of abstract art now. I wouldn’t go spending $25,000 on a painting. The small problems I had at representing this family clued me in to why painters began to make abstract paintings. They wanted to be expressive to show that it’s a just a painting and not a thing. Jackson Pollock would leave a cigarette in the canvas to remind people that it’s a construction.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did Marla feel in front of the camera?

ABL: I wasn’t able to make Marla comfortable. Rather than editing around that, sort of, failure, I made it a part of the story. I was struck early on by how absurd it was, in a way, to turn a four-year-old into a documentary subject. She didn’t want to be an interview subject. If I was around, she wanted to play, which is very natural.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How did you gain the trust of Marla’s parents?

ABL: I came to them six months before all these questions of authenticity and they decided after a weekend to allow me to make the film. I asked myself six months later when these authenticity issues came up if it’s possible that they would let me into their house if there’s nothing to hide.

NYC MOVIE GURU: How have Marla’s parents reacted to the film?

ABL: They’re not happy with the film and sent a public statement to Sundance expressing their displeasure with the editing choices that I made.

NYC MOVIE GURU: What was your ultimate goal in making this movie?

ABL: Ultimately, I wanted to make a film not about Marla Olmstead. It’s a film about me and other journalists who wrote about her and the other adults who bought and sold her paintings.

NYC MOVIE GURU: Would you buy a painting of Marla’s?

ABL: I couldn’t afford a painting of Marla’s. I do have two drawings that she made me that I pasted on my fridge on my office filing cabinet, rendering them instantly valueless. They are of more value to me as something that a kid made that reminds me of fun times I had with that kid rather than as an investment or a piece of art.

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